The city of Washington and baseball futility go hand-in-hand. No Washington franchise had made a playoff appearance since 1933 until last season when the Nationals—as a result of smart and opportunistic drafting and savvy additions from outside the organization—won 98 games and cruised to the NL East title. The rotation was among the healthiest and easily the most talented in baseball, the bullpen was deep and impactful and the lineup scored the fifth-most runs in the NL.
Then, disaster. The Nationals and Cardinals split the first four games of their NLDS series in October and Washington held a commanding 6-0 lead in the decisive fifth game before the bullpen—capped off by an awful performance from closer Drew Storen—blew the lead and lost the game, ending their season.
Playoff disappointments aside, the Nationals look poised to be World Series contenders for years to come with an incredible young core of excellent players including first overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and other franchise cornerstones like Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond.
The Nationals stuck with their plan of shutting down Strasburg at 160 innings (he pitched 159 1/3) in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. Barring further arm injury, this should be the year they turn him loose. His strikeout rate topped 30% and his 11.13 K/9 was the highest for a starting pitcher since Kerry Wood struck out 11.35 batters per nine innings in 2003. If he can stay healthy enough to throw 220 or more innings, we could see some truly historic numbers from the 24-year-old.
The Nationals have two other legitimate top-of-the-rotation pitchers as well in Gio Gonzalez and Zimmermann — both entering just their age-27 seasons. Gonzalez led the NL among qualified starters in strike-out rate last season and also gave up a league low 0.41 HR/9. His 5.4 WAR according to FanGraphs trailed only Clayton Kershaw among NL pitchers. Zimmermann, meanwhile, also put up an excellent season posting a 3.56 K/BB ratio and a 2.94 ERA in 32 starts.
The Nationals chose not to re-sign Edwin Jackson after his one-year pillow contract in D.C. was up; Jackson wound up with the Cubs on a four-year deal. To replace him, Washington is bringing in another pitcher on a one-year stop gap contract in Dan Haren. Haren’s upside is much higher than Jackson’s, but given the back and arm problems he suffered last season, Haren might not be quite as good. Despite being nagged by injuries all last season, Haren still made 30 starts and had a better K/BB ratio than Zimmermann, but he gave up 28 home runs in only 176 2/3 innings. If he’s healthy and can keep the home run-rate down, he could still be a decent mid-rotation option for Washington.
The final spot in the rotation will go to left-hander Ross Detwiler who pitched in 164 1/3 innings last season and fared well posting a 3.40 ERA. His middling strike out- and walk-rates suggest there could be some regression, but he should still be more than adequate in the fifth spot. If he completely falls apart, the Nats are thin on the depth chart with Yunesky Maya and converted reliever Ryan Perry appearing to be the best choices in the minors.
The bullpen is the only part of the team that looks drastically different than it did a year ago. Gone are three southpaws in Sean Burnett, Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny and in is new closer Rafael Soriano who signed a two-year, $28-million deal with a vesting option for 2015. The Nats now posses three excellent high-leverage relievers at the back-end of the bullpen in Soriano, Storen and Tyler Clippard.
They didn’t do much to replace the three departing left-handers and will head north with only one southpaw in the ‘pen in veteran Zach Duke who had a 1.32 ERA in only 13 2/3 innings last season. Clippard does seem to have a pretty consistent track record of reverse splits and can handle some of the tough lefties in opposing lineups. The Nats recently signed veteran lefty J.C. Romero as an insurance policy, though he begins the season in Triple-A.
High-upside and high-velocity arms like Ryan Mattheus and Henry Rodriguez will fill out the pen with long-man Craig Stammen who could, in theory, start if someone gets hurt. Stammen was excellent in 88 1/3 innings last season—the most of any reliever in baseball besides Josh Roenicke who pitched in 1/3 of an inning more for the Rockies.
The Nationals scored the fifth-most runs in the NL last season and by all accounts should be even better in that regard this year. First off, they’ll get a full season from Harper in left field who was impressive as a teenager in 2012 posting a .352 wOBA and 22 home runs. The 20-year-old phenom is poised to put up some monster numbers and should continue to get better over the next few years.
The rest of the Nats outfield will also get a boost with the addition of Denard Span to play center. Span has been a better-than-average hitter the last few years in Minnesota and is a spectacular defender. His on-base abilities and speed make him an ideal leadoff hitter to slide in ahead of the big bats in the middle of the order. In right field will be Jayson Werth who should be healthier this year after a wrist injury kept him out for half the year in 2012. He may not be worth his cumbersome contract, but he’s still a very good player who’s above average in all facets of the game.
It’s expected that the three outfielders will occupy the top three spots in the order ahead of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman managed to stay on the field last season for the most part and posted a 121 wRC+ and 25 home runs. Recurring problems with his throwing shoulder may eventually move him to first base but he should be good for another year or two at the hot corner.
Washington waited out first baseman Adam LaRoche and allowed him to test free agency this winter, but they ended up re-signing him to a two-year deal with a third-year option at reasonable dollars. He was a better hitter than Zimmerman last season and will make a nice stop-gap until top prospect Anthony Rendon is ready and pushes Zimmerman across the diamond.
In the middle infield will be Desmond at short and Danny Espinosa at second. After a disastrous 2011, Desmond lived up to some of his promise in 2012 hitting 25 home runs and posting a 128 wRC+ while improving his defense greatly at short. According to FanGraphs, he was the most valuable position player on the team last season. Espinosa, meanwhile, showed some pop with 17 home runs and hit well enough to keep his job. If he regresses, Steve Lombardozzi isn’t much worse overall.
Wilson Ramos had the year from hell in 2012. After being kidnapped prior to the season in his native Venezuela he got hurt during the year and played in only 25 games. If he’s healthy, he could be a first-division starter, but he’ll share playing time with Kurt Suzuki at least to start the year.
Washington turned batted balls into outs better than any other NL team last season and with the addition of Span in center and a healthy Werth in right, they could be even better in 2013. Both Suzuki and Ramos are excellent defenders behind the plate as well and Espinosa and Desmond are solid up the middle. Despite his arm problems, Zimmerman is at least average at third and LaRoche is about as good as a first baseman can be.
Most people didn’t expect the Nationals to be quite so good last season, but they arrived a year ahead of schedule. Now that they have arrived, the weight of expectations will be placed upon a team whose cornerstones are still very young. They have easily the most talent of any team in baseball, but also could have some issues if injuries strike—something that didn’t really happen to them much last season, at least on the pitching staff. The only real threat to their second-straight division crown is the Braves, but either way they should make the playoff without too much trouble. Once they do, that pitching staff will be awfully tough to overthrow.
2013 Prediction: 97-65, 1st NL East