The 2014 Washington Nationals made making the playoffs look easy, going 69-38 after Memorial Day and running away with the NL East.
What will not be easy, however, will be selecting the 25-man roster for the NLDS against the Pittsburgh Pirates or the San Francisco Giants. Furthermore, rookie manager Matt Williams has to decide the roles of several key contributors, like Ryan Zimmerman and Tanner Roark.
There’s no doubt that Zimmerman and Roark will make the postseason roster, but at what capacity? For the majority of this season, Washington has played without its face of the franchise. Roark, the fifth starter, could be expendable since teams have a four-man rotation in the playoffs.
Roark has pitched in the bullpen before, which makes logical sense to make him the long reliever. However, he’s outpitched Gio Gonzalez, the expected Game 4 (if necessary) starter, all season.
Then there’s the issue with Zimmerman. Out of everyone starting right now, who would be relegated to the bench? Adam LaRoche is a Gold Glove-caliber defender at first and his left-handed power bat balances a right-handed heavy lineup. Asdrubal Cabrera has made clutch plays in the field and at the place since being acquired from Cleveland at the trade deadline. Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon will not be bench. Denard Span has been fantastic in center-field, no matter what FanGraphs says. Jayson Werth is arguably their team MVP, so that leaves Bryce Harper.
Would Williams, who was clear about Harper’s role with the team in August, be benched?
In all likelihood, the Nationals will play the match-ups and have LaRoche sit against a tough lefty and have Zimmerman play first. Against a right-handed hurler, Zimmerman could play third, which would shift Rendon to second and Cabrera to the bench, but Zimmerman has been a defensive liability there since his abdominal and shoulder problems flared up a few seasons ago.
Zimmerman would not be a bad option as a pinch-hitter as well. His versatility, along with Rendon in the infield and Werth in the outfield, gives the Nationals plenty of options.
Those plenty of options aren’t only with the position players. Their starting pitching was one of the league’s best in 2014, sporting the lowest ERA and the least unintentional walks issued. If Roark is the odd man out, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, and Gonzalez would make up the rotation. Strasburg will be a Top 2 starter, as his stuff is elite and his home numbers far exceed his road stats. Zimmermann, fresh off a no-hitter, seems to be the favorite to start Game 1 on Friday and with good reason. Zimmermann’s bulldog mentality and impeccable control bodes well for playoff baseball. Fister would then pitch Game 3 on the road and Gonzalez following in Game 4.
There is nothing to worry about with the starting pitching, but the bullpen, which was so dominant in the first half of the season, has some question marks.
It is all but certain that Roark will be one of the relievers for Washington, as is All-Star Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen in some role, but what about Rafael Soriano? Soriano stumbled to a 6.48 ERA in the season’s second half and converted only 10-of-15 saves, losing his job to Storen in the process.
Matt Thornton has revived his career after a disastrous beginning with the New York Yankees. Ross Detwiler has had his moments, as has rookie Aaron Barrett.
The bench players will have to include one of the before-mentioned “starters.” That person could be Zimmerman, as he’ll be joined by backup catcher Jose Lobaton, infielder Danny Espinosa, and a few others. The few others are intriguing because constructing a playoff roster is different than the 162-game marathon that is the regular season. Scott Hairston seems like a good choice to be a right-handed pinch-hitter, but Zimmerman may have that role. It’s more likely Nate Schierholtz, a left-handed bat with could play all three outfield spots, makes the roster. Kevin Frandsen could play almost anywhere on the diamond and Danny Espinosa is a slick-fielding middle infielder.
That leaves the last spot to Michael Taylor, a young outfielder that has speed to burn. He could play the role Dave Roberts had with the Red Sox in 2004 and we all know how well that worked out.
Don’t be surprised if Soriano, who has a $14 million club option for 2015, doesn’t make the cut. He is clearly not capable of being a reliable closer in the playoffs and his appearances in non-save situations weren’t any better. The following is what the 2014 Washington Nationals NLDS lineup could look like.
CF- Denard Span (L)
3B- Anthony Rendon (R)
RF- Jayson Werth (R)
1B- Adam LaRoche (L)
SS- Ian Desmond (R)
LF- Bryce Harper (L)
C- Wilson Ramos (R)
2B- Asdrubal Cabrera (S)
The above lineup would be if a right-handed pitcher would start, which is much more common than a left-handed pitcher. Only Madison Bumgarner and Francisco Liriano are possible lefties to start against Washington in the divisional round. Their rotation and bullpen could look something like this:
Game 1- Jordan Zimmermann (R)
Game 2- Stephen Strasburg (R)
Game 3- Doug Fister (R)
Game 4- Gio Gonzalez (L)
(L) Matt Thornton
(L) Ross Detwiler
(R) Aaron Barrett
(R) Craig Stammen
(R) Tanner Roark [long reliever]
(R) Tyler Clippard [8th inning]
(R) Drew Storen [closer]
Notice that Soriano isn’t on this projected roster. The only saving grace he may have is Stammen, who allowed six hits and five runs without recording an out in the second-to-last day of the regular season. Finally, here is a possible bench scenario.
C- Jose Lobaton (S)
MI- Danny Espinosa (S)
UTL- Ryan Zimmerman (R)
UTL- Kevin Frandsen (R)
OF- Nate Schierholtz (L)
OF- Michael Taylor (R)
Williams has until 10:00 Friday morning to finalize his roster for the NLDS. Washington is looking for its first trip to the NLCS in franchise history. Before that happens, Williams has to use his best judgment to construct a team that is best fit to win three of five games. Playoff baseball is back in the nation’s capital.
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