Washington had the best record in baseball last season and won their first NL East title since the team moved back to D.C. in 2005. This was done without the presence of Michael Morse in the lineup for a nice chunk of the season, someone who was an integral part of the team's growth in 2011.
Morse has since been dealt by general manager Mike Rizzo to bolster the team's farm system, and a bevy of other moves were made this offseason to plug any tiny holes that may have existed on the roster.
Good things are ahead for the Nationals in 2013.
2012 Record: (98-64)
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): LF Raymond Kruml (FA), INF Wil Rhymes (FA), RHP Caleb Clay (FA), LHP Fernando Abad (FA), RHP Randy Consuegra (FA), LHP Bobby Bramhall (FA), OF Denard Span (from Minnesota), LHP Zach Duke (FA), RHP Dan Haren (FA), RHP Tyler Herron (FA), INF Brian Bocock (FA), INF Mike Constanzo (FA), LHP Sean West (FA), C Joe Witkowski (FA), RHP Ross Ohlendorf (FA), 1B Adam LaRoche (FA), LHP Brandon Mann (FA), RHP Casey Upperman (FA), UT Delwyn Young (FA), RHP A.J. Cole (from Oakland), RHP Blake Treinen (from Oakland), RHP Matt Torra (FA), RHP Rafael Soriano (FA), LHP Robert Orlan (FA), OF Jerad Head (FA), C Chris Snyder (FA), RHP Jeremy Accardo (FA), 1B Micah Owings (FA) and LHP Will Ohman (FA).
Key Departures (courtesy of SI.com): LHP Sean Burnett (FA), UT Mark DeRosa (FA), C Jesus Flores (FA), RHP Alex Meyer (to Minnesota), LHP Mike Gonzalez (FA), LHP Tom Gorzelanny (FA), RHP Edwin Jackson (FA), LHP John Lannan (FA), OF/1B Michael Morse (to Seattle), RHP Chien-Ming Wang (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Stephen Strasburg (15-6, 3.16 ERA, 1.155 WHIP)
- Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89, 1.129)
- Jordan Zimmermann (12-8, 2.94, 1.170)
- Ross Detwiler (10-8, 3.40, 1.223)
- Haren (12-13, 4.33, 1.291)
C: Kurt Suzuki (.235/.276/.328)
1B: LaRoche (.271/.343/.510)
2B: Danny Espinosa (.247/.315/.402)
3B: Ryan Zimmerman (.282/.346/.478)
SS: Ian Desmond (.292/.335/.511)
LF: Bryce Harper (.270/.340/.477)
CF: Span (.283/.342/.395)
RF: Jayson Werth (.300/.387/.440)
Bullpen (per official site)
Closer: Soriano (RHP) (2-1, 42 SV, 4 HLD, 2.26 ERA, 1.17 WHIP)
Drew Storen (RHP) (3-1, 4, 10, 2.37, 0.99)
Tyler Clippard (RHP) (2-6, 32, 13, 3.72, 1.16)
Zach Duke (LHP) (1-0, 1.32 ERA, 1.10)
Craig Stammen (RHP) (6-1, 1, 10, 2.34, 1.20)
Ryan Mattheus (RHP) (5-3, 18 S, 2.85, 1.15)
Henry Rodriguez (RHP) (1-3, 9, 2, 5.83, 1.40)
Christian Garcia (RHP) (0-0, 4 HLD, 2.13, 0.79)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
The 3.40 ERA compiled by their starters was also second (Tampa Bay checked in at 3.34), and their xFIP was tied for third in the league with Tampa Bay (3.68).
The dominance doesn't stop there. They struck out 8.07 batters per nine innings (fourth in MLB), allowed just 0.77 home runs per nine innings (second in MLB) and posted 72 wins (tied for first with Texas).
If the Nationals need to improve on anything next season, it's how much length they get from their starters. They ranked 18th in the league with 953.0 innings tallied by starters. Not wasting pitches and going right after hitters could be an easy way to remedy that problem during the upcoming campaign, though.
When talking about the members of the rotation, Strasburg is the name that stands out. He's entering his first season without any sort of restrictions, and that should bode well for the team and its fans.
He was great in 28 starts before being shut down famously in early September and should be back out to prove his doubters wrong in 2013. That should be a scary thought for opposing offenses.
Hitters already had a difficult enough time facing Strasburg (he struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings). Throw in some new motivation and he could be looking to blow his fastball by even more guys than he already has.
What kind of numbers can we expect from him over a full season, though? To put it simply, damn good ones.
Don't be shocked with a 20-win season from him; definitely don't be surprised with a sub-3.00 ERA; and there's no way we should expect anything less than 250 strikeouts if he pitches over 200 innings like he thinks he can.
The second ace of the Nationals, Gonzalez, seems ready to start the season with the team even after being connected to the Biogenesis lab in the most recent PED report. He'll likely be cleared to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, so that should be a good sign regarding his status for the beginning of the season.
For now, then, let's all assume he's innocent until proven guilty.
Gonzalez finished third in NL Cy Young voting in 2012, winning a league-high 21 games and throwing just under 200 innings (199.1). The fact that he wasn't your typical "workhorse" likely hurt his chances in the final vote.
Even though he didn't strike out as many batters per nine innings as Strasburg, he technically led the National League in that category because Strasburg didn't qualify at the end of the season. Gonzalez's mark was 9.3.
He may not be as dominating as Strasburg, but I'll take him any day as my No. 2 starter—and probably nine times out of 10 as my No. 1 starter.
Zimmermann has improved each of the past two seasons, going from an eight-game winner in 2011 to a 12-game winner in 2012.
His ERA dropped from 3.18 to 2.94, and there's plenty reason to believe that he can improve yet again this season. As he continues to learn how to go deeper into games, he'll see more chances to earn wins.
Zimmermann had a funny season in terms of run support. He ranked 15th in baseball with a run support of 4.91 runs per game, but he fell victim to several low-scoring efforts by his lineup. On the same note, he was also the beneficiary of some high-scoring outbursts. He'll hope for some more consistency from his offense in 2013.
Detwiler enters spring training for the first time as a guaranteed member of a major league rotation, and that's because he earned it with his strong showing last season.
He is by no means a dominant pitcher (evidenced by his 5.8 K/9), but he doesn't allow all that many baserunners either (1.22 WHIP). He just knows how to get outs, and his defense loves playing behind him.
The Nationals could do much worse with the No. 4 spot in their rotation. He has the potential to continue to improve, and he could be a dark horse 15-game winner in 2013.
Nothing like having veteran Haren as the No. 5 starter entering spring training, right?
Even after a 4.33 ERA and a career-low (as a full-time starter) 176.2 innings last season, Haren is poised to have a big season. There's a good chance that we'll just be able to chalk up last season as an anomaly, as he's had the consistency over the course of his career that teams look for.
Even if Haren produces a .500 winning percentage with an ERA around 3.80, the Nationals should be ecstatic that he signed with them on a one-year deal. He'll play an important role in mentoring the team's young pitchers and will have more of a lasting impact on the franchise than just one season's stat line.
The Nationals and Atlanta Braves will be battling it out for the title of league's best rotation, and you honestly couldn't go wrong picking either one. The Nationals may have the edge just because of depth, however.
Scouting the Bullpen
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. General manager Mike Rizzo didn't necessarily fix his team's bullpen over the offseason, but he most definitely made it deeper.
Storen, after collapsing during the final inning of Game 5 in the NLDS against the Cardinals, will no longer be closing games out—at least not in 2013.
Neither will Clippard, the guy who filled in for Storen while he was injured for much of the 2012 campaign.
Instead, All-Star closer Rafael Soriano will take over the ninth inning duties, giving the Nationals one of the best late-game trios in the league. Again, the Braves will give them stiff competition for that title and, again, you would't be wrong choosing either one.
With this trio in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, teams will have to beat the Nationals in the first six innings of games—something that will prove extremely difficult given the incredible starting pitching.
The Nationals may not need their middle relief or long relief corps very often, but the pitchers in those roles are quite good themselves.
Stammen, Mattheus, Duke, Rodriguez and Garcia are all returning from last season.
Duke should see a larger role as the lone left-hander in the pen, and Garcia could also see a larger role. In a small sample size in 2012, Garcia dominated. Even though he has the least experience of the group, he could turn out to be the best of the bunch by season's end.
While not listed on the depth chart, Bill Bray and Ohman could see time as lefty specialists if they have good springs, so Duke may have to fight to keep his job.
If left-handed specialist is one of the few holes on the Nationals, things should look great for next season.
Scouting the Hitting
After not being strong offensively in 2011 (.242 team batting average), the 2012 offense produced a 28.7 WAR (seventh in baseball) and a team batting average of .261 (ninth in baseball).
Breakout campaigns from Desmond and LaRoche had much to do with that improvement, but so did the emergence of NL Rookie of the Year winner Harper.
I have no doubt that he'll help anchor the offense in 2013, and don't be surprised if he puts up MVP type numbers in just his second season. He has the type of potential.
Span will be the biggest improvement to the offense. The Nationals have been in search for a legitimate leadoff hitter for several seasons—they even had Werth there for most of the end of last season—and they now have one in Span.
Largely underrated in Minnesota, Span will get the attention he deserves in the media-driven city of Washington, D.C. He deserves the praise, especially after the .283/.342/.395 line he compiled last season.
His presence alone should make guys like Harper, Werth, LaRoche and team leader Zimmerman happy to hit in the middle of the lineup. All four have a legitimate chance to drive in over 80 runs (maybe even 100).
Zimmerman played through injury for most of 2012 and still produced great numbers. He hammered 25 home runs and compiled 95 RBI, but he did lead the league with 20 double plays grounded into. I think the Nationals can deal with that if he produces again in 2013, though.
Espinosa and Suzuki are the lone question marks in the lineup. Neither is capable of hitting for a very high average, and neither player provides much in terms of run production.
The Nationals should be happy if each player gets on base at about a .320 clip in 2013, a number that isn't so ridiculous to expect.
Steve Lombardozzi and Wilson Ramos are ready to take over at second base and catcher, respectively, so manager Davey Johnson at least has options should either falter.
Even though he's yet to pitch a full season in the bigs, there shouldn't be any doubts about Strasburg heading into 2013.
He has all the potential in the world to produce numbers similar to Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander. While there's no guarantees he will do that next season, it shouldn't be entirely ruled out.
Strasburg averaged 95.8 miles per hour on his fastball last season, fast enough to make opposing batters grimace in the box. Ironically, that represented a career-low for the fireballer. That could likely be explained by his desire to go deeper in the games and, for that, you can't fault him for "slowing it down" a bit.
His changeup even averaged 88.7 miles per hour, fast enough to make soft-tossers like Jamie Moyer wish they had his arm.
His control is great, his repertoire is deep and his velocity is a sight to behold. There's no reason for Strasburg not to contend for the Cy Young if he stays healthy, and that will be the primary concern for the Nationals this spring and throughout the entirety of next season.
Simply put, if he's healthy, I want Strasburg starting every fifth day for my team.
Zimmerman was the leader on offense last season, even after playing hurt a vast majority of the time. He underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery during the offseason, so he shouldn't have any problems with his shoulder in 2013.
He pumped out 25 home runs and 95 RBI even with his bum shoulder. I fully expect 30 home runs, 100-plus RBI and a .290-plus batting average from him during a healthy 2013.
He's been with the Nationals since 2005—literally through thick and thin—and he finally gets to bask in the glory of being a member of a damn good baseball team.
This should motivate him in 2013, and opposing pitchers should take notice. He wants no part of being on a losing team again, so he'll do everything in his power to make sure the Nationals dominate—and that's a pretty good amount of power, by the way.
There are plenty of other great hitters on the Nationals, but none will be as consistent or as game-changing as Zimmerman.
Harper has the ability to turn an already great team into a powerhouse if he can improve upon his strong rookie campaign. He could potentially be the difference-maker between a World Series berth and another early-round exit.
Even with the dreaded phrase "sophomore slump" being floated around in regards to Harper, I don't see it happening.
He started out hot last season, slumped when pitchers adjusted, then adjusted himself and finished the final month of the season with seven home runs and a .330 batting average.
He won't sustain that incredible pace through 162 games, but saying that he won't be able to adjust isn't a statement that can be logically justified. He's shown he's capable of making changes at the plate and that ability will carry over to 2013.
If Harper can display the plus-plus power that he was pinned with as a top prospect, then the Nationals may have found their cleanup hitter for the next ten-plus seasons.
Forty home runs may not be likely in his second season, but predicting 30-plus home runs and near 100 RBI should get you in the ballpark (terrible pun intended).
Prospect to Watch
Anthony Rendon has had an injury-plagued college and minor league career, playing just 43 games in his first professional season in 2012.
He failed to produce much, hitting just .233/.363/.489 with six home runs and 12 RBI.
If it's any consolation, he did progress to Double-A Harrisburg after beginning the season in Rookie League with the Gulf Coast Nationals.
Rendon is 22 years old and likely mature enough to play in the bigs this season. He shouldn't make the club out of spring training, though, I wouldn't be surprised if he was a September call up.
Depending on where the Nationals are in the standings come that time will determine on how much he'll play.
He's a great defender, so expect him to get some late-inning defensive action when the Nationals are up. He could also get some at-bats as a pinch-hitter.
Rendon should be a mainstay with the team by 2014 or 2015, but he may only get to enjoy a brief cup of coffee next season.
What the Nationals Will Do Well
The Nationals will do two things very, very well next season—rack up quality starts and hit balls out of the ballpark.
Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Detwiler and Haren should all be counted on for at least 20 quality starts apiece. The rotation will be dominant and lead the team to another playoff berth.
Werth, Harper, Zimmerman, LaRoche and Desmond all have 20-home run potential. The five of them will put up ridiculous home run totals to lead the offense.
With good pitching and good hitting, what's not to like?
What the Nationals Won't Do Well
Well, the Nationals struck out 21.3 percent of the time last season (sixth-highest in the league). That number needs to improve in 2013 to make their offensive attack more consistent.
Striking out frequently tends to be the case with teams that live and die with the long ball, but the Nationals lineup is constructed with complete hitters that also happen to have the ability to hit the ball out of the park.
Not trying to do too much at the plate should be drilled into the position players by hitting coach Rick Eckstein during spring training in hopes that they can mitigate the high number of strikeouts.
What will be the end result of the 2013 season for the Nationals?
The Nationals will be good in 2013—very good.
So good, in fact, that Johnson has adopted the motto of "World Series or bust" in his final season as the team's manager before moving on to a job in the front office.
This little motto should motivate the veterans and young guys on the team for the entirety of the season. Johnson was the first manager to bring the Nationals out of mediocrity, and the players should be eager to give him one last world championship before he rides off into the sunset.
There honestly aren't too many reasons to pick against them as it is.
Projected Record: 97-65, first in NL East