MLB Network's "30 Clubs in 30 Days" did its in-depth preview of the Washington Nationals this week. On the program, Mitch Williams, one of MLB Network's lead analysts and a former Phillies closer, predicted Washington would finish second in the National League East behind the Phillies and make the playoffs as a wild-card team.
I spoke to Williams Tuesday about what he likes about the Nationals this season. He was getting ready for the MLB Network's Opening Day 30 Games in 30 Days, which is a very busy time for him as the network will showcase live games involving all 30 major league teams.
Why do you see the Nationals finishing second in the NL East?
Williams: "Last season I picked them to finish third, and with the improvement they have made, clearly they are the second-best team in the East and a true wild-card contender and with some luck they could win the division."
"It really starts with pitching and Stephen Strasburg at the top of the rotation, but that innings limit of 160 to 170 this year has me concerned. Early in the season they should have him go no longer than five innings and turn things over to the bullpen. They need to save his innings for a late summer playoff run; that makes sense."
"I really like the depth of the rotation. You have Jordan Zimmermann, who is a horse. Gio Gonzalez has the best curve in baseball for a left-hander. Edwin Jackson is a steal. He is a power pitcher that will eat up innings. John Lannan is a real solid fifth starter. I also was told by [manager] Davey Johnson that Chien-Ming Wang's sinker is as good as it was when he won 19 games with the Yankees. So once he gets off the [disabled list], that will be a great addition. You can never have too much starting pitching especially if you want to be a contender for the playoffs."
How about the bullpen?
Williams: "The bullpen is one of deepest in the majors. Drew Storen is a little sore now, but that is why you have a proven winner like Brad Lidge as a backup. Bringing him to the Nationals bullpen was a very good move. Lidge is in great shape and will really help the young guys understand what it takes to win."
"Johnson is not going to put Tyler Clippard in as the closer; he is the eighth-inning setup man. Henry Rodriguez is a wonderful surprise, he now understands he does not have to throw the ball 100 miles per hour to get guys out, he can throw a changeup and his control issues seem to be settled. You have Sean Burnett who is a nice change of pace because he isn’t a power arm. He is a crafty left-hander who gets outs."
"What a guy like Lidge can teach these pitchers is that getting batters out in the seventh and eighth innings is always tougher than getting them out in the ninth."
"In the seventh and the eighth, a hitter knows if they can't get a hit or produce a run there is always the next inning so they are more relaxed, therefore making them far more dangerous. In the ninth a hitter knows this is their last chance and they need to make it happen now. That gives the closer the advantage if he can get ahead in the count, get that first strike, that is key. Then the closer can make you hit his pitch or better yet strike you out on a pitch out of the zone."
How about the offense?
Williams: "They will get hitting from a healthy Ryan Zimmerman who I really believe is the best all-around third baseman in the National League. I spent a lot of time with Jayson Werth and I really think that he will have a much better year, and he will rebound from last year’s down season. By the way, I think he will be hitting second in the lineup, which is his best spot."
"Then when he is healthy again—hopefully soon—Michael Morse will still be the beast. I look for better production from Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa. The one problem that I do have with the Nationals is that they did not start Bryce Harper in center field. Trust me: In 20 days, he will be in Nationals Park where he belongs. This team will win with pitching, defense and some well-timed power."
James Williams is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials.