1. Max Scherzer will post the best ERA of his career.
In each of the last four seasons, Scherzer’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) has been better than his ERA. What does this mean? He’s been even better than his ERAs suggest.
FIP is an ERA-like number that is based on that which a pitcher can control: home runs allowed, walks allowed, hit-by-pitches allowed and strikeouts. A pitcher whose FIP is consistently lower than his ERA is often the victim of bad defense behind him (groundballs that should turn into outs instead become singles, line drives that could be caught become doubles, etc.).
Scherzer’s previous team, Detroit, has been terrible defensively over the last three seasons, totaling -163 Defensive Runs Saved (only Cleveland has been worse). The Nats should at least be a middle-of-the-pack team defensively, and Scherzer should see his ERA benefit. Case in point is Doug Fister, whose 2014 ERA (2.41) was much better than his FIP (3.93) off the opposite being the case the previous two seasons with the Tigers.
2. Tanner Roark will make at least 15 starts
Who led Nats pitchers in bWAR in 2014? Not Fister or Jordan Zimmermann. It was Roark, who, believe it or not, had a better ERA+ (ERA that’s adjusted for a pitcher’s league and home ballpark) than Scherzer. The fact that Roark is beginning the season in the bullpen is the type of sports injustice you rarely see, but he has handled his 2015 role like a total pro.
But I don’t see Roark spending all or even most of 2015 in the bullpen.
1. There doesn’t seem to be a defined role for Roark, and I would hope that manager Matt Williams learned some lessons from what happened with Ross Detwiler in 2014 (him never having a defined role seemed to really work against him, though it’s not like he pitched well in the opportunities he received). Roark isn’t a strikeout pitcher, which has become a virtual must for late-inning relievers in MLB.
2. While Nats starting pitchers have mostly stayed healthy the last few seasons, it is not a stretch to envision one or more missing time due to injury in 2015. Fister, remember, missed the Nats’ first 34 games in 2014 due to a right lat strain.
3. Gio Gonzalez is coming off a down year by his standards, registering an ERA+ of 105 (100 is league average). His peripheral numbers (FIP, strikeout rate, walk rate) suggest that he should be back to his 2010-13 self in 2015, but what if he isn’t? If the Nats find themselves in a tighter-than-expected National League East race and Gonzalez is again up and down, Williams shouldn’t resist summoning Roark to the rotation.
3. Bryce Harper will slug .500
Harper, who is making the switch from left field to right field, is one of the few Nats regulars who hasn’t battled injury or dealt with recovery during spring training. He’s coming off a terrific postseason (three homers, a double and two walks in the four-game NLDS loss to San Francisco). And oh yeah, he’s entering just his age-22 season.
Harper’s biggest problem has been staying healthy. His regular-season batting, base-running and defensive numbers did all decline in 2014, but I’m willing to blame a lot of that on health (he missed 57 games due to a torn ligament in his left thumb). He was very good in winning National League Rookie of the Year in 2012, and his rate stats (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) were even better in 2013. While it’s hard to feel confident that he won’t miss at least some time in 2015 due to injury, it isn’t hard to believe that what we saw against the Giants last October was a sign of things to come.
Only 13 qualified MLB players slugged .500 or better in 2014. Harper will join that elite company this year.
4. Michael Taylor will lead the Nats in stolen bases
Taylor figures to be the Nats’ regular center fielder for at least the first month of the season thanks to Denard Span coming off surgery on March 9 to repair a right core-muscle injury (he underwent sports-hernia surgery in December). Additionally, outfielders Jayson Werth (arthroscopic surgery on his right AC joint in January) and Nate McLouth (season-ending surgery to repair a torn right labrum last August) are expected to begin the season on the D.L. So the opportunity will be there.
Taylor, a sixth-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, is rated as the Nats’ second-best overall prospect by MLBPipeline.com. He was one of the best defensive center fielders in the minors last season and is plus base-runner. President of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo wasn’t shy about putting the pressure on Taylor, telling MASNSports.com in March, “It’s time for Michael Taylor to emerge.”
Striking out has been a problem for Taylor. Playing time will not be. And he will prove to be the Nats’ biggest base-stealing threat in 2015, espcecially given that Span and third baseman Anthony Rendon (sprained left MCL) are grappling with their health.
5. The battle for the N.L. East will be tighter than expected
The Nats’ injury problem is legit. Rendon, Werth, Span, McLouth and reliever Casey Janssen (right rotator-cuff tendinitis) are all expected to begin the season on the D.L. Additionally, Harper, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Wilson Ramos all have significant injury histories. And Yunel Escobar, who was signed to be the regular second baseman but is expected to begin the season at third base, dealt with a Grade 1 left oblique strain during spring training.
Additionally, while the division doesn’t appear to be strong, it is not a stretch to think that the Miami Marlins or New York Mets contend. The Marlins have the best young outfield in MLB (Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton), have arguably the best starting pitcher in the division (Jose Fernandez, who is coming off Tommy John surgery) and made a number of offseason acquisitions (starter Mat Latos, infielder Dee Gordon, infielder/outfielder and former Nat Michael Morse). The Mets are loaded with young starting pitching, even with Zach Wheeler done for the season due to Tommy John surgery.
I believe that the Nats will win the N.L. East. But I also believe that the race will be closer than many think.