Following a record-setting season last year that saw the Nationals finish first in the NL East and advance to the playoffs for the first time since relocating to the nation's capital, their time to contend has arrived.
As many Nationals fans know and want to forget, last season came to a screeching halt in the National League Divisional Series. A crushing Game 5 defeat handed to them by the St. Louis Cardinals will certainly serve as motivation as the Nationals work to get to and win the World Series in 2013.
With a few key additions this offseason, expectations are at an all-time high for the organization, which seemingly has a World Series-or-bust mentality. The respective pieces of the puzzle are now in place to make a legitimate run at a title. It's been a long time coming, but the following five reasons outline why this is the year for the Washington Nationals.
This age-old adage rings true for many franchises that have had winning ways in the past. As evidenced by the reigning World Series Champions, the San Francisco Giants. To many baseball enthusiasts, the theory of pitching winning championships is simply conventional wisdom.
Of the 107 World Series over the span of the MLB's history, only 22 of those teams had better overall hitting than pitching. With that being said, the Nationals' dominant staff and bullpen has only improved going into this season. As they prepare to report for spring training, the Nationals will look to lay the Strasburg Shutdown debate to rest once and for all in the coming months.
Washington, which was ranked first in ERA and third in strikeouts in the National League in 2012, boasts a talented starting five that can match any in the bigs. With pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, he's set to be unleashed with no anticipated restrictions heading into the season. It has been noted that he could approach or exceed the 200-innings-pitched threshold in 2013. That alone is dangerous for the rest of the league.
His supporting cast of two-time All-Star Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, veteran Dan Haren and Ross Detwiler round out the rotation nicely. The Nationals bullpen also received a major boost with the addition of Rafael Soriano. The former New York Yankee will add much-needed reliability and consistency to the back end of the Nats bullpen, an area where they faltered in the 2012 postseason.
Soriano will predictably be preceded by Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. The young and talented duo round out one of the best seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning combos in baseball.
The Nationals organization played their cards right this offseason, signing proven veteran Dan Haren to a one-year deal. A great addition to an already formidable pitching staff.
Given his upside, Haren is a nice risk for the Nationals, who now seem to have the National League's deepest rotation. Manager Davey Johnson was quoted on the signing of Haren, stating "I like his competitiveness. I think it's a great move, great athlete, outstanding stuff—gamer. He fits right in and he'll be a great addition." With something to prove following an off-year with the Angels, Haren can only help the Nationals in the long run. If he manages to stay healthy, the team could easily approach the 100-win plateau.
Washington didn't stop after signing Haren (and Rafael Soriano). They also added Denard Span via trade with the Minnesota Twins.
The center fielder is notably in his prime and comes in at a relatively cheap price tag. He'll add multiple dimensions to the Nats' outfield, primarily on-base skill and excellent defensive range. These low-risk, high-reward additions are the type that can propel a team to the next level of postseason success.
In 2013, Harper will be driven like no other to improve, and that drive could easily result in a monstrous sophomore campaign.
With enough expectations already resting on the highly publicized phenom, he will need to continue to develop in his second season for the Nationals to have continued success. Lowering his strikeout rate, improving his maturity and well-noted temper are a few areas to start.
If that can occur—and if he can continue to get on base, hustle and produce at the top of the lineup—the sky is the limit for Harper. As the cornerstone of the Nationals' bright future, the reigning Rookie of the Year will play a major part in this team winning a title.
Having experience under your belt in any endeavor serves as something to look back at, learn from and improve upon.
The Washington Nationals received just that during their episode of implosion in Game 5 of the NLDS last year. An epic collapse for a team and their fans who had high hopes during their initial playoff run.
The elimination aside, Washington now knows what it takes to get to the postseason and to succeed in it. Like many teams in the past, throughout multiple professional sports, it typically takes this type of situation to toughen a team's psyche. Now is the time to build on that and take the next step.
Davey Johnson could very well be the X-factor on this list. He's tried and true, has been to and (most importantly) won a World Series as a player and a manager. Johnson led the infamous 1986 New York Mets to the promised land in dominant fashion.
On the verge of turning 70 this season, Johnson hasn't let off the gas pedal with his managerial ways. Even recently boasting about his current squad during the MLB Winter Meetings, saying "How do you like my team? ...World Series or bust." This will ultimately be Davey's last hurrah, as he plans to retire after the 2013 season. What better way to go out than on top with one more World Series ring?
There are even numerous parallels between the '86 Mets and the '13 Nationals. Dwight Gooden and Stephen Strasburg, two clear cut, dominant aces. Darryl Strawberry and Bryce Harper, two young up-and-coming left-handed sluggers. Those are just a couple to note.
What it all boils down to is that Johnson knows how to mentor and manage a young, fast-maturing team on the rise. Now that he has another year of perspective, he’ll be even stronger and hopefully have a similar fate as with the 1986 Mets.