by Patrick CannonBy Patrick Cannon

WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — The Hot Stove is dead, long live the real baseball season! Oh wait, it’s only Spring Training. In that case, let the second-guessing and speculation continue until Opening Day.

Thursday, March 5, 2015 marks the first time the Nationals will take the diamond since, once again, falling short of expectations in the 2014 NLDS. Who will be leading them onto the field? None other than the $210M man himself, Max Scherzer.

The addition of a former Cy Young winner to an already loaded rotation is one of the main reasons why the Nats are atop most experts’ pre-season rankings. Fortunately, pre-season rankings are about as impactful on the outcome of games as screams from the bleachers. One of the drawbacks to being the most talented team in the league is that your success will only be measure by postseason results.

We’ll have to wait 162 games to figure out whether this team can exercise their October demons. That’s a lot of baseball. Plenty can happen in the seven month marathon that is the MLB season. Just think back one year ago when Nats fans entered Spring Training debating whether Danny Espinosa or a quiet kid named Anthony Rendon should take over second base duties. How crazy does that sound now? Not a lot of buzz surrounding that Espinosa bobblehead day at Nats Park—though the Nats marketing team are dummies if they don’t hand out Espinosa mustaches at some point this year. That thing would humble Ron Swanson.

Mustache envy aside, here are 10 storylines to ponder before the Nats begin their 2015 campaign:

1. Championship or bust – This is a myth. If you don’t hate this cliché already, you will by April. It’s all you will hear when the Nats are discussed on ESPN. Championship or bust is mortgaging your future as a last gasp to win now. The Nats are not taking this approach despite what you hear.

In Rizzo we trust. Mike Rizzo is the most important man to this franchise. Sure, the impending free agency departures of Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Denard Span and Doug Fister are terrifying and depressing, but do you think that keeps Mike Rizzo up at night? Hell no. Rizzo wants to win this season, but he also wants to win next season, and for a dozen seasons after that, FOR-EV-ER.

While you are crying about Desi, Zimm, Span and Fister, Mike Rizzo is taking Trea Turner, Lucas Giolito, Michael Taylor and A.J. Cole out to a steak dinner.

Also Read: Gio Doesn’t Want to Hear ‘World Series or Bust’

2. Can Ryan Zimmerman handle first base? – Third base and left field are difficult positions. First base is where you put your fattest, slowest player (unless Bartolo Colon is on your team). Mr. Walk-Off will be just fine in his new role. The Nats sorely missed his clutch hitting down the stretch last year. Coming off the bench in the playoffs last year turned him into a non-factor. Ryan Zimmerman will be your Comeback Player of the Year.

3. Can Rendon repeat? – While Bryce Harper hogs the spotlight on this team with his 450-foot bombs and witty retorts, it is Rendon who was the team’s offensive MVP last season. Tony “Two Bags” will need to build on that in his second full MLB season if this team plans to take the next step.

The biggest knock on this team is offensive ineptitude. The Braves staffs of the 90’s would be a footnote had their offenses not been able to scrap together runs when it mattered. We are looking at a historically capable rotation this season, but there isn’t a 30-home run guy going to bat for us. To combat that deficiency, Rendon will need to continue to rake and lead this team in runs.

4. Bullpen questions – If run-scoring isn’t your No. 1 concern for this team, the bullpen probably is. Who will fill in for Clippard? Will Storen survive the entire season as closer? The consensus seems to be that the Casey Janssen we signed will be the 2013 version, rather than the much more human 2014 version. If that overly optimistic assumption is the case then the 8th inning should be taken care of.

The more likely scenario is Matt Williams getting plenty of exercise in the dugout—running to the bullpen phone—playing matchups.

If Storen isn’t convincing as closer early in the season, we may be counting on Rizzo to make a deal before the deadline. Closer is the most volatile position in all professional sports and having a sure thing on the backend of your bullpen is essential for playoff success. How much do you trust Drew Storen in October after his 2012 and 2014 meltdowns?

5. Can Matt Williams get this team to the next level? – Many justifiably questioned his managerial decisions during the NLDS, most notably: pulling Zimmermann in the bottom of the 9th in game 2, not shaking up a lifeless lineup, and generally being two steps behind Bruce Bochy the entire series.

Don’t let those seething memories discredit the man for a phenomenal first season as manager. Williams masterfully guided the team through the regular season and led them into the playoffs as favorites to win it all. Williams will face similar expectations this season and there is no reason to believe he won’t be successful.

We’ll be watching closely in October, skipper.

6. Order of the rotation – Whose effectiveness will take a hit from the log jam of talent? The reward for a phenomenal 2014 season from Tanner Roark is a seat 400 feet from home plate, in the bullpen. Who else will be adversely affected by the deluge of talent in this rotation?

Scherzer, Strasburg, and Zimmermann are as close to a sure thing as you can get for a 1-2-3. Hopefully they push each other all season long. And yes, I believe Scherzer will be your Opening Day Starter. That’s not to say the rotation may not adjust through the season, but you don’t pay a man the GDP of Liberia to be your No. 2—that would be some expensive S&*%.

7. Rookies – I feel like a fat man complaining about a tummy ache here but it’s a shame this roster is so loaded that we won’t get to see much of our rookie talent this season. It is going to be an uphill battle for any rookie to make this team. Michael Taylor is the favorite to get the most playing time if and when one of our outfielders goes down. Other than that, keep an eye on Syracuse and Harrisburg this year to watch the development of Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole.

8. The Battle of the Beltways – Thus far, advantage: O’s. As a Nats fan, I would love to see our fan base expand, and I know it will eventually. However, the Orioles have always been a fly in that ointment. From Angelos attempting to block D.C. from getting a baseball team, to their fans gallant 20-minute commutes for “takeovers” of Nats Park, the O’s are always doing their best to create a rivalry.

Beyond the frivolous, the most annoying fact is that the Birds have made the playoffs both of the seasons the Nats have reached the postseason. The O’s were garbage for years, and, whether they admit it or not, their fans were ready to jump ship. Then, when the Nats began to improve and built a shiny new stadium, Angelos finally began to invest in his own team again. The result­—two surprising O’s playoff runs. You’re welcome, Baltimore.

9. Harper – His health and his mouth have been discussed more than his performance to this point in his career. If he can stop crashing into walls, I don’t care what he says. His performance in last year’s playoffs was the only thing that made me smile through the offseason.

If you think Harper is still immature and brash, you’re right. This will be his fourth year in the league and he still has yet to face a pitcher who he is older than.

Harper might become the most polarizing figure in D.C. sports history. I can’t recall rooting for a guy who is so widely despised in every stadium but his own. It’s fun to root for the bad guy. Unlike the movies, in sports, sometimes the bad guy wins. Just ask LeBron.

Also Read: Harper Not Leaving D.C. Without a Ring

10. How far can they take this thing? – When Tim Hudson challenged the Nats fortitude last fall, they folded like a lawn chair. Hudson said, “They have some great pitching. But come playoff time, talent can take you a long ways, but what do you have between your legs? That’s going to take you real far.”

The Nats were overmatched by a more experienced opponent in 2014. The core of this team now has two bitter playoff losses under their belts. Between playoff bitterness and players in the last year of their contracts, you’d be hard-pressed to find a player on the Nats who didn’t have a chip on his shoulder.

Whether falling short of expectations will serve as their motivation or become their legacy remains to be seen. They know they are the favorites. They know what’s expected of them.

Well then, I guess there’s only one thing left to do …

Follow Patrick on Twitter @RubGun and send your e-mail, questions and topic suggestions to cannon1067@gmail.com.

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