Last season, the Washington Nationals suffered defeat at the hands of the eventual World Series champions San Francisco Giants during the Divisional Series. The series was a tightly contested affair, where neither team scored more than four runs in any of the four games. Game two was one of the most memorable games of the last several seasons. The Nationals lost 2-1 in an 18 inning heartbreaker with the team failing to score after the 3rd inning. In the series’ decisive 4th game, Gio Gonzalez failed to make it out of the 5th inning, and the Nationals’ most successful season to date ended with a whimper.
2015 is already starting out to be a different year for the Nationals. Washington has splurged on singing free agent ace Max Scherzer, who is just one season removed from his Cy Young Award winning campaign in 2013. Scherzer’s deal includes a record $50 million signing bonus to go with his seven-year $210 million contract. Half of Scherzer’s salary will be deferred, meaning that Scherzer will receive $15 million annually for the next 14 years. According the Jayson Stark, the Nationals would not have been financially capable of completing the move unless they already have deals in place to move Jordan Zimmerman and possibly also Ian Desmond. However, Joel Scherman of the New York Post claims that the Nationals may keep Zimmerman as part of the plan to go “all-in” in 2015.
Scherzer would be the Nationals second legitimate ace on their already solid pitching staff. Scherzer’s fastball usually stays in the mid to low 90s and is one of his primary weapons. His low ¾ delivery makes it difficult for opposing hitters to spot his pitches. In addition to the fastball he uses his slider as his main off speed weapon against right handed hitters and a change up against lefties. Scherzer is a workhorse pitcher that eats up innings and will set a great example for the Nats’ young pitching staff. Last season he set a career high with 220.1 innings pitched while posting the second best ERA of his career, 3.15. He set a career high in strikeouts and pitched a complete game for the first time in his career.
If the Zimmerman move goes through, Scherzer would presumably take over his spot in the rotation. Zimmerman was the #2 starter in the rotation and the 28-year-old started 32 games and finished with a 14-5 record while recording an ERA of 2.66. If Zimmerman stays in Washington, it gives them one of the most formidable pitching staffs in Major League Baseball. The staff’s ace from last season, Stephen Strasburg will be with the team through 2017. Doug Fister will be a free agent after the 2015 season. Gio Gonzalez is locked into a deal which include a team and vesting option that could keep him with the club until 2017. This pitching staff had the most quality starts of any MLB team with 110 on the season.
The projected odd-man-out of the pitching rotation is Tanner Roark, but he is at least saying the right things to keep himself in the picture. The 28-year-old Roark improved on a spectacular debut season and finished with a 15-10 record in 31 starts with a 2.85 ERA. Roark is eligible for arbitration in 2017 and will not see free agency until at least 2020. Roark has said that he is ready for a move to the bullpen if it will help the Nationals compete for a World Series title.
Roark would bolster an already solid bullpen that features Craig Stammen, Matt Thornton, and Aaron Barrett in front of closer Drew Storen. The Nationals had the lowest team ERA in the MLB with 3.03 and the bullpen exceeded that mark with a 3.00 ERA among relievers. With a proven ace like Max Scherzer now in their starting rotation, and a bullpen strengthened by Roark, Washington’s World Series dream may not be far away from realization.
The Nationals projected payroll for 2015 is expected to be around $150 million, putting them about $38.5 million under the luxury tax. However, with Doug Fister and Denard Span projected to be free agents after the 2015 season, Washington general manager Mike Rizzo will have to make organizational decisions that could potentially put his team into the luxury tax. Teams are punished with a tax of 17.5% of their total payroll during their first year over the $189 million mark. The penalty is stiffened to 30%, 40%, and 50% for each successive season over the threshold. Scherzer’s move puts the Nationals in a situation where they could spend conservatively to field the talent necessary to be a World Series contender.
The Nationals move to sign Scherzer gives them a rotation that will keep them in contention with the Giants and Dodgers for a National League title. The Nats should be expected to win the National League East division with no other clear cut contender emerging during the offseason. If they make the playoffs, the Nationals will have a fearsome playoff rotation of Scherzer, Strasburg, Zimmerman, and Fister. That rotation will make them one of the teams to watch heading into the 2015 season.