Where do the Nationals rank among this year's likely World Series contenders?
Every single player and coach will report to spring training with a common dream to win the World Series. When they sleep, their heads will be filled with the sounds of roaring crowds and cheesy TV promos.
Some teams shouldn't get their hopes up too high. As much as the Houston Astros would love to win the World Series in 2013, they'd be better off hoping for the skies to open up and for bona fide major leaguers to come raining down. And as much as the Chicago Cubs would love for their 104-year championship drought to end, they should ready themselves for the tally to climb to 105.
Winning the World Series will only be an actual attainable goal for a select number of clubs. Looking at the lay of the land on the eve of spring training, I see only 10 legitimate World Series contenders.
Here's how I rank 'em.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
The Diamondbacks have retooled this offseason, but I'm not convinced they've gotten better. They have solid pitching and good individual pieces on offense, but the total package has a "meh" quality to it that will make life tough for the D-Backs in a tough NL West.
New York Yankees
I'm sure the Yankees will contend in 2013. They haven't made any major upgrades this offseason, but they still have a solid rotation anchored by two really good pitchers in CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, and they still have more than enough power to go around. But they're no better than they were in any of the last three years, and the AL East is no longer their plaything.
The Phillies will enjoy tremendous pitching if Roy Halladay stays healthy and if Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels do precisely what they did last year. But their offense scares me and they're not close to being on the same level as the Washington Nationals or Atlanta Braves.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays have the pitching depth to overcome the loss of James Shields and to continue contending in the AL East, and Wil Myers should establish himself as a Rookie of the Year candidate once he's called up early in the year. But I don't see a team that will be a threat in a short postseason series against the AL's elite.
The Rangers should still be a quality ballclub in 2013, but they've definitely gotten worse this winter. You can't lose as much power as they've lost with Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli leaving the team and not skip a beat the following year. The strength of the AL West will only make things tougher.
All the Cardinals have to do to be World Series contenders in 2013 is get to the postseason, and they should have enough firepower to do just that.
The Cardinals are returning all the key members of an offense that ranked second in the National League in runs scored in 2012, and first in on-base percentage. They'll be fine on offense again so long as Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina keep the power coming, and more than fine if Matt Carpenter handles himself as an everyday second baseman.
Also, watch out for Oscar Taveras. He's on the cusp of the major leagues, and ESPN's Keith Law dared to compare him to Vladimir Guerrero. Bold words, but this is from a guy who was right about Mike Trout.
With their offense, the Cardinals won't need their pitching to be great. It should be good, though, as Adam Wainwright should be at full strength in 2013 and the Cardinals have some very talented young hurlers to call on in Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal.
My main concern is the loss of Chris Carpenter for the season. The Cardinals will make it through the regular season just fine without him, but they'll miss him in the postseason. That's the only reason I have them down here at No. 10 instead of in my top five.
Still, I expect the Cardinals to do what they usually do in 2013. They'll occasionally look like the best team in the world, and occasionally like the worst team in the world. The end result will be a modest 90-win season, give or take a win or two.
But once the postseason begins, the Cardinals are a different animal. Expect more of the same in 2013.
There were two major surprise stories in the American League in 2012. One was in Baltimore, the other in Oakland. One had Buck, the other had Bernie.
Between the two, the A's have a much better chance of carrying their success over to 2013 because of one major advantage they have over the Orioles: the strength of their pitching staff.
The A's ranked sixth in baseball with a 3.48 ERA in 2012, and their staff will feature many familiar faces in 2013. Bartolo Colon will be their resident innings-eater and Jarrod Parker and Brett Anderson have the potential to be co-aces. Anderson could be a Cy Young contender if his health holds.
Oakland's offense featured many moving parts in 2012 that Bob Melvin arranged and rearranged like a master puppeteer. He'll be able to do the same in 2013, as Billy Beane went out and bolstered the club's depth by trading for Chris Young, John Jaso and Jed Lowrie.
The A's didn't really have an MVP last season, but things will be different in 2013 if Yoenis Cespedes realizes his massive potential. He was supposed to be the next coming of Pedro Cerrano in his first season against major-league pitching, but he managed a respectable .356 OBP and struck out in fewer than 20 percent of his plate appearances (see FanGraphs).
The A's won a very tough AL West in 2012, and the division has only gotten tougher this offseason with the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners both making significant moves. But the A's were the best of the bunch in 2012, and they certainly haven't gotten worse in the last few months.
However, one of their division rivals looks just a little bit stronger.
The Angels were supposed to make the playoffs and make a run at the World Series in 2012, but they didn't. According to team owner Arte Moreno, the only response to such disappointment is more.
Moreno's big move was bringing in Josh Hamilton as a replacement for Torii Hunter. He's going to be a liability a few years from now, but in 2013, he and Albert Pujols may combine for 80 home runs. Mark Trumbo should also give the Angels 30 home runs, even if he doesn't recapture his brilliance from the first half of last season.
It's not fair to expect another hugely successful season from Mike Trout in 2013. But even if he does regress, a 25-50 season is in the cards. And with him in left and Peter Bourjos in center, not many fly balls are going to be touching down when the Angels are in the field.
The Angels' defense in general will be very strong in 2013, and that will help Jered Weaver continue to find success with his ever-increasing pitch-to-contact style. The Angels' D will also help Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton provide solid value for their cheap salaries.
The Angels should also be better off in their bullpen, which killed them last August. The addition of Ryan Madson will allow Ernesto Frieri to serve as a killer eighth-inning setup man, and Mike Scioscia now has two solid lefties to call on in Sean Burnett and Scott Downs.
It's going to be a tight race between the Angels and A's in the AL West, but the Angels have an edge because of their offensive firepower. This same edge will come in handy in the postseason as well.
The AL East is going to be a brutal battleground in 2013, as all five teams in the division have the potential to be postseason contenders if things pan out the way they're hoping.
But on paper, the Blue Jays are easily the most talented team in the division. They've made a ton of improvements this offseason, none more important than the ones meant to improve their starting rotation.
NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey's knuckleball was the single most effective pitch in baseball in 2012, according to PITCHf/x. The move to the American League won't hurt it. Beyond him, the Blue Jays can count on 200 innings out of Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow both have tremendous stuff. Ricky Romero will be among the league's best No. 5 starters if he finds his control again.
What's really scary about the Blue Jays, however, is their offense. Before injuries destroyed their lineup, the Jays ranked third in baseball in runs scored and second in home runs at the All-Star break in 2012 (see ESPN.com). That was mainly thanks to Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, who are going to be a dangerous middle-of-the-order duo once again if Bautista's surgically repaired wrist holds up.
What's even scarier about Toronto's offense is that it has some versatility now. Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio will provide plenty of speed, and Melky Cabrera's line-drive swing will come in handy even if he doesn't hit .340 again (and he won't).
The Blue Jays mean to go for it this season while the Yankees and Red Sox are down. Postseason inexperience will be a hurdle for them to overcome, but they certainly have the talent to go far.
I have nothing against the Giants on paper, so bear with me while I dish out some props before I get to what caused me to put them down here at the No. 6 spot.
It all starts with pitching when it comes to the Giants. They have one of the league's top aces in Matt Cain, and he just keeps getting a little better every year. The 2012 season saw him set a new career high with a 3.78 K/BB that obliterated his previous career high of 2.90.
Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong are as steady as they come behind Cain, and Barry Zito finally turned a corner last year when he went 7-0 in his final 11 starts and then starred in the postseason.
The big question mark is Tim Lincecum, but he shouldn't be as horrid in 2013 as he was in 2012. An offseason weight gain could give him the arm strength he needs to find some lost velocity, and he's hopefully learned that he needs to pitch rather than throw at this point in his career.
The Giants aren't going to be an offensive juggernaut, but they'll be fine as long as Buster Posey stays healthy and productive in the middle of the lineup. A .320/.400/.500 line is in the cards for him, and Pablo Sandoval should be a .300 hitter as well if he stays healthy (which includes not being fat) and focused.
Now then, with all this talent, why aren't the Giants higher on this list?
Recent history, of course. There hasn't been a repeat champion in over a decade, and Giants fans who remember 2011 will know that a season after a championship run is full of perils. Giants players dropped like flies in 2011, and they didn't have the depth to overcome their losses.
As good as the Giants are, depth is an area where they're still lacking. That could be an issue.
If you want to hate the Dodgers for being the new Yankees, that's fine. But whatever you do, don't underestimate them.
The Dodgers have the right idea for what it's going to take for them to win a championship. They've taken a starting staff that was already good—Dodgers starters finished third in ERA in 2012—and garnished it with Zack Greinke and Ryu Hyun-jin. Greinke is one of baseball's best right-handers, and Ryu is supposed to have the goods to be one of baseball's top left-handers.
The Dodgers already have baseball's best left-hander in Clayton Kershaw, who has a 2.40 ERA since 2011. They also have a ton of rotation depth lined up in the likes of Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang.
Los Angeles' pitching will be able to carry the club through the regular season and will make them a worthy challenger to the Giants in the NL West. What makes the Dodgers a potential World Series winner, however, is that their offense may be just as good as their pitching.
The health of Matt Kemp's left shoulder is a concern, but he'll be a force in 2013 if he stays on the field. Carl Crawford will be effective if good health finds him as well, and he could even pan out to be a surprise MVP candidate if he allows himself to relax more in Los Angeles than he did in Boston.
Adrian Gonzalez is not as hopeless as he was for a large chunk of 2012. Andre Ethier crushes right-handers when he's healthy. Hanley Ramirez put himself on a path back towards stardom with the Dodgers last summer with a 112 OPS+ in 64 games.
Expectations for the Dodgers in 2013 are high, but they have the talent to live up to them.
The Reds darn near finished with baseball's best record last season, and they looked like the best team in the world in the first two games of the NLDS before the Giants shocked them with a comeback.
In 2013, the Reds have the pieces to challenge for baseball's best record again, and you can rest assured that they learned from their brutal exit from the 2012 playoffs at the hands of the Giants.
Cincinnati's success in 2012 was based largely around its pitching, and the status quo should hold in 2013. The Reds have two co-aces in Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, and Homer Bailey staked his claim to ace status by posting a 1.85 ERA in his final seven regular-season starts and then dominating in his one postseason start.
The Reds could have a fourth ace in their rotation if Aroldis Chapman's move to the rotation pans out. I have serious concerns about how his arm is going to hold up, not to mention whether or not he can be a pitcher rather than a mere thrower. But if the Reds proceed carefully with him, he'll at least be a capable back-end starter. He'll certainly be better than Mike Leake, anyway (for what that's worth).
The Reds have baseball's best left-handed hitter in Joey Votto and a steady power threat in Jay Bruce, but the guy to watch in their lineup is new addition Shin-Soo Choo. He had an .881 OPS as a leadoff man in 2012, which is music to the ears of Reds fans after watching the club's leadoff men manage a .581 OPS in 2012. Choo's defense in center could be an issue, but his bat will be a very welcome addition.
If the Cardinals follow their usual pattern of barely being a 90-win team, the Reds should have no trouble taking the NL Central in 2013. They'll be a very dangerous team in a short series if their pitching is as good as it should be, and this year, they'll have the lineup to out-slug teams if need be.
It's too bad Chipper Jones retired. He's going to miss out on a ton of fun in Atlanta this season.
The Braves were a good team before, but they're loaded now after the moves they've made this winter. Having Justin Upton in left, B.J. Upton in center and Jason Heyward in right gives Atlanta one of baseball's very best outfield trios, as all three players have 30-30 potential and all three play good defense (especially Heyward).
Don't sleep on Atlanta's infield, either. Andrelton Simmons is going to be a perennial Gold Glove winner, the Braves should get at least 20 homers out of Dan Uggla and we still haven't seen Freddie Freeman's best production.
I wouldn't classify Atlanta's starting rotation as being elite, but teams should fear Kris Medlen after what he did at the end of last season when he posted a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts. Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm are both quality-start machines, and Mike Minor is being criminally overlooked after posting a 2.16 ERA in the second half of the 2012 season.
Atlanta's bullpen, meanwhile, may be the best in baseball. Craig Kimbrel is a cyborg sent from the future to protect ninth-inning leads, and he's set up by two very good lefties in Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty. New addition Jordan Walden will be dominant if he locates his fastball and gets hitters to chase his slider better than he has over the last year or so.
The Braves aren't baseball's best team, but they have the talent to at least be in the discussion. Teams should be just as scared by the fact that Atlanta is clearly motivated after its 2012 season came to a disappointing and controversial end.
The Tigers won 88 games in 2012, and it took a late-season charge for them to win the AL Central.
When I look at them now, I see a 90ish-win team. I also see a team that should represent the American League in the World Series again.
All the Tigers have to do is get into the playoffs and let their pitching take it from there. It's clear enough looking at what he's done since 2011—2.52 ERA, 489.1 innings, 489 strikeouts—that Justin Verlander is baseball's best pitcher, and he's flanked by three guys who are solid No. 2s on any team.
Doug Fister has a 2.95 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP as a Tiger. Max Scherzer has excellent stuff and is coming off a season in which he led all starters in K/9. Anibal Sanchez isn't an $80 million pitcher, but he's been steady since 2010 and he clearly enjoyed pitching for a contender in 2012.
Pitching is what catapulted the Tigers to the World Series once they got to the postseason in 2012. You can expect more of the same in 2013, and I'm not overly worried about durability being an issue. Verlander is a freak of nature, Fister only pitched 161.2 innings last year, and Scherzer and Sanchez have exactly zero 200-inning seasons between them.
On offense, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder should both hit over .300 and combine for over 70 home runs. Austin Jackson made huge strides last season and should continue to get better. Victor Martinez will be a better No. 5 hitter than Delmon Young, and Torii Hunter will be a better No. 2 hitter than, well, whoever it was who hit second last year.
The only real concern I have about the Tigers is how good their bullpen is going to be. But since their bullpen didn't keep them from making it to the World Series last year, I'm not taking it for granted that their bullpen will keep them from the World Series this year. The rest of the team is too good.
The Nationals are the best team in baseball. Hands down. Mark it eight, dude.
Washington's batting order is as versatile as they come. Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth will supply power. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa will provide power and speed. Denard Span will be the leadoff man and center fielder the Nats wish they had in 2012.
No single member of Washington's starting nine should be overlooked, but Harper should be the star of the show in 2013. He had the greatest season ever by a 19-year-old, and it finished with him slugging .690 over his final 34 games. He could be the second 20-year-old to hit 40 homers, joining Mel Ott.
Washington's pitching staff is just as dangerous as its offense. Stephen Strasburg will contend for the Cy Young in 2013 after managing a 3.16 ERA and an 11.1 K/9 in his first (somewhat) full season. Gio Gonzalez finally became an ace thanks to sharpened control in 2012. Jordan Zimmermann has the stuff to be an ace on most other staffs, and Dan Haren will be an ace-level pitcher if his health holds.
The signing of Rafael Soriano took Washington's bullpen from being a moderate strength to being a major strength. He's not Craig Kimbrel, but he's generally been durable and has saved over 40 games in two of the last three seasons. He'll have two dangerous setup men in Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen forming a bridge to him.
The Nationals were baseball's best team in 2012, of course. All the while, the only real knock against them was that they were inexperienced upstarts. After getting their feet wet in the postseason and coming a couple of outs shy of the NLCS, that knock no longer applies.
Washington should see its first World Series in decades in 2013, and the Nats are easily the safest pick to win it all.
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