October 21, 2020

Washington Nationals Opening Day: Optimism abounds, but injury concerns lurk

The Washington Nationals are almost every single publications odds-on favorite not only to represent the National League in the World Series, but win the whole dang thing, and with good reason. The starting rotation could perform at historic levels, the batting order was third in the N.L. in runs scored last season, and the bullpen is deep and talented, though perhaps not as deep as the past season or two.

In fact, the only thing that could derail the Nats from what seems to be their destiny this season has already reared its ugly head: injuries.

Look, I know opening day is a time for unbridled optimism. And there’s a lot of cause for that in the Nation’s Capital. And by Memorial Day, this discussion could very well be a moot point.

But with the injury track record of some of these guys, in very well may not.

The best news is that there haven’t been any concerns thus far with the starters. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister all seem to be 100 percent and ready to carry this team to predicted great heights. The Nats are in an enviable position of carrying 15-game winner Tanner Roark in the bullpen.

But there are plenty of other concerns, any single of which could slow the Nats significantly on the way to the playoffs.

Denard Span, who is the catalyst of the offense, had abdominal surgery and while he’s started running and playing in the field for a few innings at a time, is still a couple of weeks off from being able to play on a regular basis, and at that, could feel the lingering effects of a core surgery for months.

Jayson Werth, he of off-season shoulder surgery (as well as a short jail stint for going 105 in a 55), just started swinging a bat and while he thinks he could be ready by the end of the week, it could very well take until the All-Star break before full power returns to his shoulder.

Nate McLouth is apparently still so far from returning the Nats traded Jerry Blevins to fill his spot with Matt den Dekker.

Set-up guy Casey Janssen, brought in for the departed Tyler Clippard, is shelved for an undetermined period with shoulder tendinitis and, with his history of shoulder trouble, it could be quite some time before he throws his first pitch in a Nats uniform.

The most worrisome injury, though, is to third baseman Anthony Rendon’s knee.

Injured during spring training, Rendon was supposed to miss a day or two with soreness in his left knee. “Day-to-day” became indeterminate, then officially “week-to-week” after a third opinion recommended no surgery for the burgeoning superstar.

We still have no real time frame for Rendon’s return, and with he, Span and Werth all out of the lineup, the Nats — projected for 90-plus wins, a division and league title — are without their 1-2-3 guys in the lineup to start the season, most likely for the better part of a full month.

Then, we have to consider Ryan Zimmerman, and his penchant for injury. He’s missed significant time each of the past four seasons due to injury. In spring training, he hanged up a shoulder diving for a ball at first base. He’s tried to wean himself from sliding into bases head-first, but it’s also hard to break old habits and change an aggressive nature.

Speaking of aggressive natures, wither Bryce Harper? Here’s a guy that figuratively exploded during the bright stage of the NLDS last year, with three homers in the series. Though he enters his fourth full season in the bigs, has yet to play more than 139 games in any due to accumulation of injury.

Not to mention Yunel Escobar’s history of back trouble, and playing through it, or Wilson Ramos’ inability to play though a full season at this point in his career.

What does that do to projections? Does that turn a 94-win team into a 90-win team? 88 wins? Battling for a wild card? Hard to tell.

This Nats team could be special. All things considered, a perfectly healthy Nationals team should be favored to win the National League. With the Phillies and Braves projected to be the two worst teams on the circuit, a division title at least should be a lock.

But all the injuries early are a cause for concern for the Nats on their way to coronation.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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