The Washington Nationals surprised many in 2012 when they moved into first place in the NL East in early May and stayed there the rest of the season.
In 2013, it will be surprising if they don’t spend most of the season atop the NL East.
Coming off a banner year in which they finished with the best record in the major leagues, the Nationals are a virtual lock to improve in 2013, barring catastrophic injuries.
There will be a few key statistical marks in Washington (individually and as a team) that fans and front office members alike will look for this season. All of which will attribute to the Washington Nationals' prolonged success.
The following list gives an in-depth look at a handful of them.
As a subject of endless debate over a situation he had no control over, Stephen Strasburg is surely ready to put 2012 behind him. With the shutdown controversy now an afterthought, it is widely speculated this will be his first "workhorse-type" year.
Strasburg, a legitimate ace, hovering at or beyond the 200 innings pitched threshold is certainly something Washington Nationals fans will want to see in 2013.
Having racked up an eye-popping 197 strikeouts over just 159.1 innings last season, one can only imagine what damage he can do over a full season.
With spring training now underway, Strasburg was quoted in the Washington Post as stating:
It’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be a test. And I think I’m ready for it. I've trained really hard this offseason to hopefully answer the bell and throw 200-plus innings and be the guy in the rotation that can be reliable and go six, seven, eight, hopefully nine innings this year every time out.
As defending NL East champs, Strasburg knows the road will be tougher now that Washington has a target on its back.
What opposing hitters may soon realize is the challenge will belong to them now that Strasburg can pitch as many innings as he is able.
While injuries are undeniably a part of sports, the Washington Nationals have a few key members of their roster that will need to shake off the injury-prone tag in 2013. It will be a comforting site for Nats fans having these integral parts of the team on the field for 130-plus games.
With a large amount of hype surrounding the Stephen Strasburg situation and the arrival of phenom Bryce Harper, many failed to realize the Nationals' true franchise player, Ryan Zimmerman, missed 17 games last season (after also missing 61 in 2011).
Over a rigorous 162-game schedule, that may not seem like much, but he struggled substantially early in the year until receiving multiple cortisone shots in his ailing shoulder.
After signing a six-year, $100 million extension in 2012, Zimmerman must do all he can to stay healthy and live up to the expectations of being the face of this franchise.
Aside from Zimmerman, others Nats players who struggled with the injury bug in 2012 were Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa, Dan Haren (as a member of the Angels), Drew Storen and Wilson Ramos.
Heading into spring training, Espinosa is coming off shoulder surgery, while Werth is still working to get back to 100 percent following wrist surgery last season.
If this aforementioned group can manage to stay on the field in 2013, it will undoubtedly increase their chances of defending the NL East title—hopefully followed by a run at the World Series.
Adam LaRoche enjoyed a strong campaign in 2012, finishing sixth in the NL MVP voting and winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards at his position. The lefty slugger posted a .271/.343/.510 batting line in 647 plate appearances as Washington's first baseman, appearing in all but eight regular season games.
He also set a career-high with 33 home runs and matched a career-high with 100 RBI.
With that type of production in the heart of the Nationals lineup, it is imperative that LaRoche continue his successful ways both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball.
Somewhere along the lines of a .280/.350/.530 line with similar power production is obtainable for the veteran first basemen. He certainly has the lineup support around him (Harper, Zimmerman, Werth, Desmond) to do so.
General Manager, Mike Rizzo, couldn't have summed up LaRoche's re-signing any better, saying:
Adam was a huge part of our success last year, He does a lot of things for us. He balances our lineup. He's a middle of the lineup bat. He's a run producer. He's a terrific defensive player, and beyond that he's a great clubhouse presence and a quiet leader that's very, very well-respected in the clubhouse.
Since the "moneyball" theory took the league by storm in the early 2000's, on-base percentage is thought of in much higher regard.
At the team level, the higher a lineup's on-base percentage, the more dangerous the offense as a whole typically is. The St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers finished in the top three in OBP last season, and all made deep playoff runs in 2012.
Getting runners on base is a pretty obvious key to success. It could very well be the single most important influence in a well-rounded offense.
If you get guys on base, you score runs. If you don’t, you can’t. Whether it's via a base hit or a walk, it’s that simple.
The Washington Nationals finished 12th (.322) last season in overall team on-base percentage, clearly leaving room for improvement.
The addition of speedy center fielder, Denard Span, will help. Generally, a player that excels in this statistical area leads off, which is where Span is anticipated to begin his stint as a Washington National.
He comes in sporting a career .357 on-base percentage, which is considered above average and would rank him in the top 35 in baseball this past season. Span has also gone on record making it clear he wants to improve his stolen-base rate this season. Having speed on the base paths will only be an added bonus to a team with an improved on-base percentage.
If the rest of the Nationals lineup can focus on working the count to get pitches to hit or draw walks, it will elevate the team to the next level.
This team-wide improvement may even catapult them over the 100-win plateau for the first time in franchise history.
Bryce Harper was every bit as good as advertised in 2012 on his way to winning Rookie of the Year honors in the National League.
He had a strong finish to last season, batting .327 with a .384 on-base percentage and a .660 slugging percentage over the final two months. He also compiled four triples, 10 doubles, 12 homers, 37 RBI and 37 runs scored in that span.
It is clear Harper still has a lot of untapped potential at 20 years old, but he could be primed for a breakout campaign as soon as 2013.
Over the 133 games Harper played in last season, he finished with 22 home runs and stole 18 bases. If you average those numbers out over a full season and consider him having a year of experience under his belt, the renowned 30-30 club is within reach.
Another factor to note is that Harper had even split stats in his first season in the big leagues. There should be no concern, in other words, of him struggling on the road.
Harper has that rare combination of power and speed. He will look to follow in the footsteps of some of the more recent 30-30 club members such as Ryan Braun, Mike Trout, Matt Kemp and Ian Kinsler, all of whom are considered elite talents throughout the league.