As spring training comes to an end and Opening Day approaches, the Nationals will embark on a quest to prove last season was not a fluke.
The excitement for the 2013 season is obvious. It could certainly be one of the most anticipated seasons in D.C. sports history, or on a very short list.
It's always dangerous to define your season as requiring a World Series appearance in order to qualify as a success, since the postseason is a crapshoot to some degree. But at least on paper, the Nationals appear to be as well-equipped as anyone to survive both the marathon of the 162-game season and the sprint of October.
In an effort to evaluate how the team has developed throughout spring training, the following article will grade the Washington Nationals position by position heading into this potentially historic season.
Overall Grade = A
Going into the spring, all five positions were locked in barring injuries. Heading into the 2013 season, the debate of shutting down Stephen Strasburg is finally an afterthought for the Nationals franchise.
Strasburg leads what could be the majors’ best rotation and will look to anchor the Nationals' staff in his first full season.
A 20-win, 225-strikeout season is certainly a bar that Strasburg can reach, and if he can improve pitching out of the stretch and stay healthy, he should be in Cy Young talks come September.
Rounding out potentially one of the best starting pitching duos in baseball is Gio Gonzalez, who in his own right outpitched Strasburg last season, finishing third in Cy Young voting and leading all of baseball in wins.
A front three of Strasburg, lefty Gonzalez and right-hander Jordan Zimmermann could take this team a long way. With the December free-agent signing of right-hander Dan Haren to fill the role of veteran innings-eater, the Nationals can boast a formidable back end of Haren and hard-throwing lefty Ross Detwiler.
This all but ensures that, no matter where an opponent catches the Nationals in their starting rotation, they will be facing a tough night at the plate. An intriguing option for depth is flamethrower Christian Garcia, who emerged as a bullpen force late in 2012.
Overall Grade = A-
The shocking end of the Nationals’ 2012 season, in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals, could leave lasting marks on young reliever Drew Storen. He blew a two-run, ninth-inning lead after the Nationals were one strike away from advancing.
While Davey Johnson and the Nationals still believe in Storen, the team signed free agent Rafael Soriano to be the 2013 closer. Storen will now join Tyler Clippard to form what could be the most dominant setup tandem in baseball.
Right-handers Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus, solid contributors last season, will return to their middle relief roles. Lefty Zach Duke, who pitched well during a September call-up in 2012, is expected to fill the long reliever role held last year by Tom Gorzelanny.
Washington's bullpen was not at its best down the stretch last season, and the hope is that Soriano will be consistent from start to finish ahead of his right-handed setup duo of Storen and Clippard.
The addition of Soriano truly solidifies the Nats' bullpen, earning them the above-average grade.
Overall Grade = C+
Kurt Suzuki, acquired in an August trade with Oakland, was supposed to have been little more than a two-month stopgap, filling a small down-the-stretch need. However, Suzuki played a critical role in the Nationals’ run to the NL East title.
Last season, Wilson Ramos was considered one of the brightest young catchers in the game before a season-ending knee injury last May.
The two catchers recently proved in spring training that they were deserving of the starting job, and Davey Johnson has decided to begin the season using Suzuki and Ramos every other day, keeping both fresh.
The veteran leadership and ability to handle the Nats' impressive pitching staff proves Suzuki to be valuable. Add in Ramos' power stroke and improving all-around talent and the Nationals' duo at catcher should suffice heading into 2013.
Overall Grade = B
After reviving his career with a huge 2012 season (33 homers, 100 RBI, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, sixth in MVP voting), veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche paid a visit to free agency seeking a long-term contract. But ultimately he returned to the Nationals on a two-year deal.
LaRoche’s return gives the Nationals a top glove man and a critical left-handed bat in the middle of their lineup.
Although he's a typically slow starter during the season, LaRoche’s numbers tend to level out as the season progresses. He provides top-notch defense and will look to continue his success in Washington heading into 2013.
Backing up LaRoche and rounding out the Nationals' depth at first base will be Tyler Moore.
Moore has shown some decent pop during his limited playing time thus far, and will continue his bench role heading into 2013. He will most likely be called upon in pinch-hitting situations against lefties, drawing the occasional start.
Overall Grade = C
Although the Nationals considered trading away second baseman Danny Espinosa this winter (a sign of how highly they regard backup Steve Lombardozzi), the team will return its combination of Espinosa and Lombo heading into 2013.
Espinosa strikes out too much and tends to go into long, deep funks at the plate, but he could also be poised for some sort of breakout in 2013, much like Ian Desmond last season.The inconsistencies will need to be addressed for that to happen, though.
He brings a quality combination of power, speed and defense to his position, but it's imperative he improves upon a poor batting average and high strikeout rate.
Health will be a factor for Espinosa this season, as he dealt with a shoulder injury late last year. If he can prove he is past that road block, he could easily match his 20-homer campaign, since he possesses plenty of pop in his bat.
Espinosa's backup, Steve Lombardozzi, has been more of a role player for the Nationals thus far. He is a true utility man with the ability to play second base, shortstop and the outfield.
It's an ideal situation for the Nationals to have such a versatile option off the bench. Lombo will need to improve on his lack of power and speed this coming season, but he will still serve as a valued member of this team, regardless.
Overall Grade = B+
Switched out of the leadoff spot midway through last season (into a role as the primary sixth hitter), Ian Desmond had a breakout year that saw him earn his first All-Star appearance and Silver Slugger award (he was also a finalist for a Gold Glove), while becoming an emotional leader in the clubhouse.
Coming off a year where he posted a .292/.335/.511 triple slash with 25 home runs, Desmond has the potential to be an elite shortstop in this league. He could easily flirt with a 30/30 season in 2013.
With the arrival of outfielder Denard Span, who will lead off for the Nats, Desmond could see a continued spike in his power numbers while staying put in the middle of the order.
Overall Grade = A-
Ryan Zimmerman returns at third base following a strange 2012 season that consisted of a nagging shoulder issue. In June, he received his first shot of the painkiller for his ailing shoulder, and his lacking numbers immediately took off.
By the end of the year, the popular Zimmerman wound up with a season in line with his career norms, having clean-up surgery on the shoulder immediately after the season.
As the clear-cut face of this franchise, Zimmerman has already proven he is capable of putting up monster offensive numbers, as evidenced by his hot second half in 2012. Zimmerman rounds out his top-tier talent level with quality defense at the hot corner.
If he can simply manage to stay on the field, the Nationals' lineup will be that much more potent.
Overall Grade = B+
The Nationals had been searching for years for a dependable leadoff hitter/center fielder, and over the winter they finally found their man in Denard Span, acquired via trade with Minnesota.
Not only is Span a talented offensive and defensive player, but his presence allows the Nationals to comfortably slide Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth to the corner outfield positions.
Werth can be freed from the leadoff spot, too. Harper will look to continue his growth in the big leagues. Judging by his torrid performance during spring training, he looks poised to avoid a sophomore slump.
As of now, Harper looks to be slotted in the three spot of the Nationals' lineup, clearly having gained the trust of manager Davey Johnson.
If all three stay healthy and perform to expectations, the Harper-Span-Werth outfield could be among the best in baseball.
Overall Grade = B+
Rendon was undoubtedly the Nationals' hottest hitter throughout the first half of spring training. He had four doubles, four homers and 11 RBI in 13 Grapefruit League games—impressive stuff for a 22-year-old.
Despite his torrid streak, Rendon will start the season at Double-A Harrisburg, but could ultimately reach Triple-A Syracuse in short order and potentially find himself in Washington sometime late in the regular season.
It's obvious Rendon was doing all he could to leave a lasting impression for manager Davey Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo.
Judging by the numbers he posted, he's done just that.
Rendon drew high praise from his coaching staff and teammates, both of which will certainly keep him on the minds of fans and front office alike.
A September call-up is certainly not out of the picture now.
If he can maintain his health throughout the time spent in the minors, Rendon should be in good shape to make an impact for the Washington Nationals sooner rather than later.