There’s nothing like the final week before the beginning of the regular season. Every baseball fan’s hopes, while guarded, are likely as high as they will be the entire season. There are no blemishes, only untapped white space. A storyboard waiting to be filled. Between now and Opening Day, every team still has a chance, in theory, and each fan patiently awaits with a hope that the baseball analysts have either been exactly right in their prediction about their team’s future, or dead wrong.
For bloggers, this is an important week as well. We’re a group who often doesn’t have the access to the players that the beat reporters do, and don’t have the full-time bandwidth to cover every facet of the team. For us, baseball is very often about making predictions, analyzing what has happened, and packaging it in a way that gives baseball fans a new perspective. Unfortunately that means we often end up looking stupid. Guessing, predicting, and hypothesizing is a dangerous game. This week is special for us, simply, because we have yet to be wrong.
Given that, here are five bold predictions for the Nationals season.
5. Adam LaRoche Will Not Finish The Season As The Nats First Baseman – As we all know, LaRoche was one of the biggest disappointments of 2011. He signed a multi-year deal to provide strong defense and solid hitting and he failed to do both before missing the entire season due to injury. Unfortunately, he is still not 100% healthy, nearly a year after he left the team with a shoulder injury. At 32, his numbers are likely to begin to decline anyway, but with a injury that traditionally can sap bat speed, and the fact that he missed the majority of last year, it is very unlikely he can reach the level he once was at before signing with Washington. While his positive attitude has always been welcome, it just doesn’t make sense for the team to continue to start a player in the midst of his decline during their own youth movement. Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and Steve Lombardozzi will be vying for playing time come August, and someone is going to have to fade into the bench.
4. Jordan Zimmermann Will Be The Nationals’ Best Starting Pitcher – This may be the one to come up and bite me, but I honestly believe that as Nats fans we are so excited about Strasburg and our two new hurlers, Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez, that we are forgetting that Zimmermann was one of the best starters in the National League last year. We also forget that he did that just one year removed from Tommy John surgery and on an innings limit. This year he will be ready to let it fly, and I think we will notice a huge difference. With one full season under his belt, he will be stronger, more confident, and more free to throw the pitches he wants when he wants. He may not be as flashy as Strasburg or Gonzalez, but I think when it’s said and done he can post an ERA below three while throwing around 200 innings.
3. Washington Will Struggle In April and May – Davey Johnson is a well known and widely respected manager. What has made him great in the past is that he takes both young players and veterans, works with them, builds their confidence, tests them, and ultimately, find the perfect role for them. This process takes time. In his past, teams have often struggled early in the season as Johnson tinkered, but when he finds the right combination, the sweet spot, the team takes off. I think given the youth and the injury situation with the Nationals right now, there will be a one or two month adjustment period before the team really hits its stride.
2. Anthony Rendon Will Be A Starter By September - The best thing to ever happen to Anthony Rendon is Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. It’s unprecedented really. Rendon is one of the best hitters to come out of college baseball in decades, and very few even noticed his presence in the Nats spring training camp. There was no rush of fans, no over-hyped media around the young infielder. He was able to focus on baseball, getting better, and making the squad. Mark my words, this will pay dividends. The opportunity to fail opens the door to succeed. With very little pressure on his shoulders, I think Rendon will flourish and I think he will prove to everyone in baseball that he has been by-and-large overlooked entering his first professional season. In my opinion, he is a better hitter than half of the Nationals roster, right now. He will very quickly move up through the minor leagues and by this summer, he very seriously could be pushing Ian Desmond for his job.
1. Jayson Werth Will Bounce Back, In A Big Way - Jayson Werth will likely never live up to his contract, we knew this much the day he signed it. Someone with his age and his skill set, simply don’t retain their value for as long as the team decided to sign him for. Few expected him to be just as bad as he was in 2011, however. Given that, he will have much more help in the Nats lineup this season. Zimmerman and LaRoche will be back, Ramos and Espinosa will have improved, and talented prospects will soon emerge to give him even more plate protection. I think last season he got himself into a mental funk that wasn’t helped by the fact that the team was often losing, and he was often expected to provide the majority of the offense. Things are different in 2012, and he is in a situation he is much more familiar with. Werth has bulked up, and it seems that he may have regained his own confidence. He may never be the player he was with the Phillies again, but I would not be surprised to see him reach .270/.360/.480 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI.