Washington Nationals: 4 Reasons the Nats Aren't Concerned About the Braves
While the Atlanta Braves bolstered their roster this offseason, the Washington Nationals certainly have the talent to counter it. The buzz around Atlanta has obviously circled around the arrival of the Upton brothers and while that may look promising on paper, they still need to perform.
With the Nationals coming off a 98-win season, where they won their first National League East title, there is no reason for panic. Washington’s overall roster has also improved with the additions of Rafael Soriano and Denard Span. Both of which should help them continue to compete and defend their division title.
Atlanta may serve as their stiffest competition in the NL East, but the following list will show why the Washington Nationals can temper their level of concern heading into the 2013 season.
4. Poor Overall Team Batting Average
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The Braves finished last season 21st overall (.247) in team batting average. Clearly ranking amongst the league's worst, the addition of B.J. and Justin Upton may not necessarily help improve this area offensively for Atlanta.
With the departures of Michael Bourn and Martin Prado, two above average all around hitters, Atlanta will undoubtedly struggle to fill that statistical void in their lineup. Both Upton's would technically be a downgrade in this category, all things considered.
While B.J. Upton may or may not leadoff for Atlanta, his batting average has been horrendous over the past four seasons. In fact, Upton has failed to crack the .250 plateau since 2008. He may bring more power to the lineup but he will certainly be on base less than Michael Bourn.
Upton has been prone to lapses in concentration in the past during his tenure in Tampa as well.
The same could be said regarding his brother, Justin, who also found himself in the doghouse often with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a situation which inevitably wore out his welcome with manager Kirk Gibson and the rest of the organization.
When you throw in the decline of Dan Uggla and Brian McCann over the past season, all signs point to the Braves struggling to consistently get on base and put runs on the board.
McCann may be looked at as a leader on this team, but his batting average has been on the decline over the past five seasons.
Taking a major step back last season hitting a career low .230, he simply did not look like the McCann of old.
Since arriving in Atlanta, Dan Uggla has struggled tremendously as well. His batting average has dropped in back to back seasons from .233 to .220, clearly not worth the lucrative contract he inked with the team back in 2011.
With all of these factors taken into consideration, Atlanta may have more cause for concern offensively than most realize.
3. The Maturation of Bryce Harper
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Now suited with big league (and postseason) experience under his belt, Harper will look to become a focal point of Washington's offense heading into 2013.
As a left-handed bat in the heart of the Nationals' lineup, he'll be able to counter the Braves top three starting pitchers, who are all right-handed (Medlen, Hudson and Beachy upon his return from Tommy John surgery).
Harper will be driven like no other to improve, and that drive could easily result in a monstrous sophomore campaign. A clear-cut threat to flirt with a 30-30 season, Atlanta will certainly struggle to contain Harper's breakout year.
He is the type of player that obtains the rare drive at his age to work on the areas of improvement that are necessary to avoid the dreaded "sophomore slump".
In fact, there are already rumblings that he will start the season in the three spot of the Nationals' lineup, a clear indication that Harper has earned the trust of his well tenured manager, Davey Johnson.
Johnson went on record regarding Harper's readiness to bat third, stating, "He's a tough out, he doesn't swing at bad pitches and he uses the whole field. ... He can flat out hit."
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 and to hold off the Atlanta Braves’ top-notch pitching.
If that can occur—and if he can continue to get on base, hustle and produce in the middle 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 role in this team fending off the Atlanta Braves en route to back to back divisional championships.
2. The Void Left by Chipper Jones
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With all due respect to the historic and lengthy career of Chipper Jones, this will not be an easy void to fill for the Atlanta Braves.
While he may have fallen off a bit statistically over the past few seasons, the void lies more squarely on his veteran presence and obvious leadership role with the team. The Upton brothers are newcomers to Atlanta and besides, neither ever stepped up in the leadership department with their previous teams.
In fact, former Diamondback, Luis Gonzalez recently went on record regarding Justin Upton, saying,
"There were times when Justin was on, he was a superstar, but when he was off, he would get in his shell and would have those slumps and those streaks. When you're in the middle of that lineup you have to be that rock every day when you're going good and when you're going bad. You have to provide that leadership for your teammates... Personally for me, there were times where (Justin) didn't have that."
That statement alone could be cause for concern for Atlanta. On the contrary, it could be cause not to be concerned for the Nationals regarding that veteran presence being replaced.
Catcher Brian McCann was another replacement option, but his injury situation could keep him on the shelf to start the season. Nix McCann and the Upton's.
Needless to say, losing such a legend to retirement will be a tough pill to swallow for Braves Country.
It could affect the overall togetherness in the Atlanta clubhouse, a factor which could certainly benefit the Washington Nationals in the thick of a pennant race.
1. Pitching to Match Atlanta's Offense
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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 throughout the league.
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 Atlanta Braves and the rest of the league for that matter.
As it's clear that the Nationals are at worst a top-three rotation in the NL, the addition of veteran Dan Haren will certainly solidify this team for a deep playoff run.
Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez provide perhaps one of the top 1-2 punches throughout the league. Both are without a doubt capable of eclipsing the 20-win mark as well.
That duo alone should cause fits for Atlanta throughout many divisional bouts over the span of the season. Collectively, the Nationals’ rotation ranked first in the NL in five significant statistical categories – ERA, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), WAR (Wins Above Replacement), strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP – and in most it is not even close.
Simply put, excelling in the aforementioned categories almost guarantees the Nationals the chance to compete and win games regardless of the opponent.
In this case, the improved (on paper) Atlanta Braves offense will still be challenged consistently when facing the pitching of the Washington Nationals.
The backend of the Nats' bullpen was also solidified with the addition of closer Rafael Soriano, an area that caused an early exit from the postseason in 2012 for Washington.
Soriano is coming off a year where he tallied 42 saves and an ERA of 2.26 with the New York Yankees.
The trio of Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Soriano now rival the Braves' esteemed combination of Eric O'Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel. This should keep them in close games throughout the year.
With the Braves' lineup being stocked full of primarily right-handed hitting, the likes of starters Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Dan Haren will be sure to throw a wrench in Atlanta's respective offensive plans this season.