10 Reasons Washington Nationals Will Stay Atop the NL East Next Season

Robert WoodCorrespondent INovember 24, 2012

10 Reasons Washington Nationals Will Stay Atop the NL East Next Season

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    The 2012 Washington Nationals finished atop the NL East, winning the team's first division title since they moved to Washington in 2005. 

    But things can change in a hurry during the offseason. 

    The Nationals' negotiations with recent Gold Glove winner Adam LaRoche are going slowly, and he is the free agent target of at least one other team.  And Washington is probably done with last season's fourth starter in the rotation, Edwin Jackson. But the Nats will welcome back catcher Wilson Ramos from injury. These and other changes could affect the on-field product for the Washington Nationals. 

    Of course, the other teams in the division will change as well.  The second place and Wild Card-winning Atlanta Braves expect to lose their leadoff hitter and center fielder Michael Bourn, with his replacement as of yet unknown.  The third place Philadelphia Phillies shed significant salaries at the trade deadline, but plan to retool instead of rebuild, and the ever-confident Jimmy Rollins even told CSNPhilly.com that the NL East "still goes through Philly."  The fourth place New York Mets are rebuilding, but should improve with another year under the guidance of Terry Collins.  And last but not least, the Miami Marlins may hold last place in the NL East for some time as a result of their blockbuster trade with the Toronto Blue Jays. 

    So, will all of these changes—not to mention any unforeseen moves—prevent the Nationals from repeating as division champs? 

    Here are 10 reasons why the Washington Nationals will stay atop the NL East next season.

10. The Division Has a Deep Cellar

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    The NL East may be competitive at the top, but it's crowded at the bottom. 

    The New York Mets finished fourth in the NL East in 2012 as a result of their 74-win season last year. MLBTradeRumors.com had this to say in their New York Mets offseason outlook

    The Mets have enough pieces in place that Alderson can focus on problem areas this offseason. But they have too many shortcomings to contend without making changes. Expect a busy offseason in Queens.

    And after completing an epic fire sale with the help of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Miami Marlins should consider themselves lucky if they win 60 games. Here is how MLBTradeRumors.com summed up the Marlins in their offseason outlook:

    The Marlins probably won’t be a good team in 2013. In fact their offseason moves so far suggest that winning in 2013 isn’t the organization’s top priority. Still, they can stay somewhat competitive by supplementing their young talent with some depth moves for affordable players.

    All of the teams at the top of the NL East will benefit from this stark division of power, as they now have at least one whipping boy to pound on all season long, with perhaps another team joining the ranks. 

    But the frontrunning Nats may benefit the most from this situation as they will only have one or two teams to fend off, instead of three or four.  The division's two cellar dwellers will keep the Nats from being dragged back down to the rest of the pack. 

9. The Braves Won't Make a Splash

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    After missing the playoffs in 2011 on the last day of the season, the Braves pushed the Washington Nationals all season long during 2012.  Atlanta qualified for the playoffs, and forced the Nats to wait until Game 160 to clinch the NL East Division title.  The Braves had to settle for the first of two NL Wild Card spots, and were eliminated by the St. Louis Cardinals in the one-game playoff. 

    The Atlanta Braves are in a very good position to repeat their success of 2012, which is supported by the team's offseason outlook at MLBTradeRumors.com. 

    But one glaring issue for the Braves this offseason exists in center field.  Michael Bourn is a free agent, and his agent, Scott Boras, is asking for big money, according to David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. But the Braves are already looking elsewhere.  They will probably replace Bourn with a more economical choice, such as Denard Span or Angel Pagan, and may even do so via trade. 

    A big offseason splash by the Atlanta Braves, such as landing prized free agent Josh Hamilton, would give the Washington Nationals cause for concern. But making such a splash is not the Atlanta way, as Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLBTradeRumors.com explains:

    Hamilton, the top position player available this winter, intrigues the Braves. He’ll presumably cost in excess of $100MM on a multi-year deal, however, and it’s not the Braves’ style to spend at the top of the free agent market. They should have the resources to spend on premium free agents this year now that [Chipper] Jones has retired, Derek Lowe’s contract has expired and [Michael] Bourn has hit free agency. Still, it’s easier to envision the Liberty Media-owned team spending on [Nick] Swisher or [Cody] Ross.

    The Atlanta Braves' conservative fiscal policies should help maintain the status quo at the top of the division.

8. The Phillies Have Phallen Too Phar

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    The Atlanta Braves may have finished second in the NL East last season, but the Philadelphia Phillies pose a larger threat to the Washington Nationals.

    The Phillies are only one year removed from five straight NL East titles, and finished the 2012 season 81-81.They split the season series with the Nats. 

    And several critical components from those division-winning teams are not only still in Philadelphia, but are under contract through at least 2014.  According to the team's offseason outlook on MLBTradeRumors.com, this list includes Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee and Jimmy Rollins.  Other key contributors such as Roy Halladay, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz are guaranteed through 2013.

    But as Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLBTradeRumors.com explains, the Phillies' quest to regain the NL East crown may be derailed by the uncertainty that surrounds them:

    If the Phillies obtain outfield help and address third base while adding to the bullpen, they'll have had a successful offseason. Still, the Phillies will enter the 2013 season with questions about the health of prominent players such as Utley and Halladay. This team’s hopes of contending in 2013 seem legitimate, but the Phillies are no longer the force they once were.

    The Phillies should once again be a thorn in the Nationals' side, but should not have enough to knock the Nats from their newfound perch. 

7. Been There, Done That, Won the Free T-Shirts

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    The 2012 MLB season for the Washington Nationals was quite a roller coaster ride. 

    The Nats endured injuries to significant pieces of the puzzle, including their starting catcher, left fielder, right fielder, third baseman, shortstop and closer. The team dealt with the hype and added attention regarding the MLB debut and rookie season of prized prospect Bryce Harper.  And finally, the team survived even more significant media pressure as the season entered the postseason push, enduring the saga known as the Stephen Strasburg Shutdown Debate. 

    Despite all this, the Nats were able to win the NL East, quite possibly a year ahead of schedule. 

    Since the Washington Nationals were able to handle all of that adversity and still win the division, then they should be prepared for anything that could possibly be thrown their way in 2013. This experience will serve the Washington Nationals well as they attempt to defend their crown. 

6. Rizzo Is Pulling the Strings

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    Mike Rizzo was named Executive of the Year by the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writer's Association of America (BBWAA) on November 20. The biggest moves Rizzo made in 2012 included two trades with the Oakland Athletics, one in the offseason that landed starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez, and one late in the season with which the Nats acquired catcher Kurt Suzuki. Rizzo also successfully navigated the debut and rookie season of Bryce Harper, and the shutdown debate revolving around Stephen Strasburg.

    Rizzo has more important decisions to make this offseason, as reported by Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLBTradeRumors.com. Adam LaRoche wants to re-sign with the Nationals, but a deal has not been completed yet. And the Nationals will once again be looking to fill out their starting rotation after they did not give a qualifying offer to starter Edwin Jackson.

    If Rizzo cannot re-sign Adam LaRoche, he may either seek a replacement via free agency, or move Michael Morse or Tyler Moore over to first base as they are both natural first basemen. And to replace Edwin Jackson, Rizzo could sign a high-priced free agent like Zack Greinke or a cheaper option like Ryan Dempster.

    Whatever the final decision may be on these issues and more, Mike RIzzo has already shown that the Washington Nationals are in good hands when he is pulling the strings.

5. Catching a Break

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    The Washington Nationals' biggest question mark was at the catcher position throughout the 2012 season. But the season did not start that way. 

    Wilson Ramos began the 2012 season as the starting catcher for the Washington Nationals, but tore his ACL on May 12 and missed the rest of the season. His injury set off a chain of events behind the plate that included three minor league call-ups, two major league debuts and one late-season trade.

    The player acquired in that late season trade was Kurt Suzuki, who has since been signed to a contract extension. And Ramos began rehabbing his knee in August after his final surgery, and is aiming to return for spring training.

    In 2012, the catcher for the Nationals often was both the least dependable batter and the weak link in an otherwise strong defensive infield.  With the return of Ramos and Suzuki, respectively, the 2013 Washington Nationals should have neither of these problems.

    The Nats' two dependable catchers will help the team have an easier time repeating as division champs. 

4. Bryce Is Back for Seconds

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    Bryce Harper won the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year. In 139 games, Harper hit .270 in 533 at-bats, with 22 home runs, 59 RBI, 26 doubles, nine triples and 98 runs scored.

    The key to Harper's award-winning season was his ability to adapt to opposing pitchers. Over time, he began to lay off breaking balls on a consistent basis, which helped him to heat up as the season went on. This adaptability will serve him well, as pitchers will no doubt have a few new tricks up their sleeves as the 2013 season begins.

    Harper does have flaws to correct in his game, including his propensity for striking out. If he can work on that during the offseason, that will further help his game and prevent a sophomore slump.

    The Washington Nationals were sparked by Harper's presence in the lineup during the 2012 season. If he can replicate his numbers from last season, then expect the same results for the 2013 team.

3. The Rise of Anthony Rendon

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    Anthony Rendon was drafted sixth overall by the Washington Nationals during the 2011 MLB Draft. The highly-touted prospect fell to that position after coming out of Rice University with a history of injuries.  And sure enough, he suffered one early in his minor league career, only playing 43 games at all levels in 2012. 

    Rendon was healthy by the end of the summer and was able to play in the Arizona Fall League, a showcase of each organization's top prospects. Rendon held his own and created quite a buzz for himself. 

    Despite Rendon's first professional season being disjointed, Byron Kerr of MASNSports reported in August that Rendon was a candidate for a September call-up. So, with his apparent recovery from injury and his strong performance in Arizona, it appears likely that Rendon should be called up sometime during the 2013 season, perhaps as early as June. 

    Anthony Rendon primarily plays third base. Due to Washington's stalwart at that position—former Gold Glove winner Ryan Zimmerman—Rendon will probably not play everyday like Bryce Harper did last season.

    Nevertheless, the sweet-swinging Rendon could provide a jump start to the Nats' offense much in the same way as Harper. 

2. Davey's Swan Song

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    Davey Johnson has decided to hang them up. 

    Again. 

    Johnson agreed with GM Mike Rizzo that he will manage one more season, then retire and stay with the team as a consultant. But there is no reason to believe that Davey Johnson will not manage the Washington Nationals with the same ability as he did last season, when he won the NL Manager of the Year.

    As Johnson told Paul White of USA TODAY, expectations for this ball club are still very high:

    The organization gave me a lot of good players. It's a tribute to the organization. You always want to try to please your bosses. I feel we have a higher ceiling. I think we can do more. 

    Davey Johnson hopes to take full advantage of his last season as a major league manager.

1. No Limit on Strasburg

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    Stephen Strasburg was shut down on September 7 as part of his recovery from Tommy John surgery. At the time, Strasburg was 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 159.1 innings pitched. 

    Strasburg was not too happy with the decision, as he told Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post the very next day:

    I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it, to be honest. It’s something that I’m not happy about at all. That’s not why I play the game. I play the game to be a good teammate and win. You don’t grow up dreaming out playing in the big leagues to get shut down when the games start to matter. It’s going to be a tough one to swallow.

    So when the ultra-competitive Strasburg is finally able to pitch his first complete season in the big leagues in 2013, he might have a large chip on his shoulder.  This does not bode well for opponents of the Washington Nationals, but should catapult the Nats back to the top of the NL East.

    And no, that chip on Stephen Strasburg's shoulder will not require surgery. Or an innings limit.