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Complete Washington Nationals 2014 Season Preview

Will GroomsCorrespondent IMarch 26, 2014

Complete Washington Nationals 2014 Season Preview

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    Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

    With just five days remaining until the Washington Nationals travel to Citi Field for their series with the New York Mets, newly appointed manager Matt Williams will look to get off to a good start.

    The former Arizona Diamondbacks third-base coach will have his hands full as he seeks to continue Washington's success of the past two seasons. With returning starters at just about every position, the Nats figure to be in good shape in a weak division that combined to win just 391 games in 2013.

    The Nationals will have a close eye on the progress of major offseason additions Doug Fister and Nate McLouth. McLouth adds a quality, experienced bat to a team that combined to bat a pedestrian .251 last year.

    The greatest time of year is nearly here. The following is a complete breakdown of the present state of the Nationals.

Spring Training Recap

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    For what it's worth, the Nationals have been about even-steven thus far in spring training, owning a 14-12-1 record.

    Of presumed starters that have recorded at least 25 at-bats this spring, Wilson Ramos has batted .378 while registering a team-high 13 runs batted in. In 2013, the 26-year-old catcher drove in 59 runs while blasting 16 home runs, despite appearing in just 78 games.

    McLouth has been hit or miss (no pun intended) thus far at the plate, batting a fairly pedestrian .235 and striking out 11 times. The former Baltimore Orioles outfielder still figures to be a major contributor, fulfilling pinch-hitting and spot-start roles alike. 

    Fister has done all that's been asked of him in two starts. The former Detroit Tiger has posted a 1.59 ERA, striking out six batters in 5.2 innings of work.

    Despite the two notable newcomers getting off to different starts, very little baseball has been played, and stats should be not be considered the be-all, end-all determining factor at this point. 

     

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Several players struggled with mild injuries throughout the spring training, but there hasn't been anything that figures to be extremely detrimental entering the regular season.

    Other than routine soreness and the bumps and bruises that most teams experience in the spring, everyone should be healthy come Opening Day.

    Fister dealt with right elbow inflammation, a malady that cost the five-year veteran 20 days of action this spring, according to Mid-Atlantic Sports Network's Dan Kolko.

Lineup Preview

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Hitting and manufacturing runs was a key area of concern for the Nationals in 2013. With young prospects and veteran newcomers joining the mix, Williams has a variety of different routes he can take with the lineup.

    Williams may look to use mostly the same pieces as last year but put them together differently. Following a season in which Washington batted just .245 with runners in scoring position, 10th-worst in the league, it may have been simply just an issue of order and timely hitting. 

     

    Projected Washington Batting Order

    1. Denard Span, CF

    After getting off to a rough start with the Nationals in his first year in the nation's capital, Denard Span finished 2013 strong. The former Minnesota Twin proved by his franchise-record 29-game hitting streak that he's reliable and can get on base—just what you'd want out of a leadoff hitter. 

    2. Ian Desmond, SS

    Ian Desmond has filled the No. 2 spot in multiple outings this spring. The five-year veteran batted in a career-high 80 runs last year, primarily in the No. 5 spot. This fact may prove useful to Washington, as Desmond is now batting behind a reliable Span that gets on base.

    3. Jayson Werth, LF

    Likely no change here. Jayson Werth had the best season by far of his Washington tenure batting third in 2013 and leading the team with 82 RBI.

    4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B

    The ever-reliable Ryan Zimmerman has hovered around the 2-3-4 spots over his time in Washington. Despite striking out a career-high 133 times last year, nobody doubts the most tenured Nats' hitting prowess, now batting cleanup.

    5. Bryce Harper, LF

    This will be the most notable change from 2013's lineup. Essentially, Bryce Harper will likely switch places with Desmond. Despite his numbers improving from Year 1 to Year 2, the former first-round pick has had a rough stint at the plate this spring, batting just .225. 

    6. Wilson Ramos, C

    As mentioned earlier, Ramos has had a tremendous spring thus far. The Venezuela native hopes to stay healthy, as he's only appeared in 103 games over the past two seasons.

    7. Adam LaRoche, 1B

    A tough 2013 campaign to be sure, Adam LaRoche still has the potential for extra-base hits every time he steps to the plate. 

    8. Anthony Rendon, 2B

    Likely to get the edge over Danny Espinosa, Anthony Rendon batted .324 this spring and appears to be the heavy favorite.

Rotation Preview

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Believed by many to be the best pitching rotation in the National League in 2013, Washington will return its top three studs in Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, as well as inserting a savvy veteran in Fister.

     

    Projected Washington Starting Rotation

    1. Stephen Strasburg, RHP

    Despite equally impressive numbers from Gonzalez and Zimmermann over the past couple of years, Strasburg will still be the ace in Washington. The former No. 1 overall pick continues to make strides since his 2010 Tommy John surgery.

    The biggest question mark on Strasburg is longevity. He took a large step in answering that question following his Aug. 11, 2013 first career complete-game shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies.

    2. Gio Gonzalez, LHP

    Gonzalez's heater and big breaking ball are a lethal combination for confusing batters. The southpaw struck out a team-high 192 batters in 2013, and all signs point to a healthy, consistent return in 2014 for the former first-round pick.

    3. Jordan Zimmermann, RHP

    Arguably the best starting pitcher on the team in 2013, Zimmermann is coming off of his first career All-Star selection and a season that saw the five-year veteran win a career-high 19 games.

    4. Doug Fister, RHP

    Possibly the biggest X-factor on the team, how Fister performs in 2014 could make or break the Nationals' playoff hopes. The former Detroit Tiger brings 127 career starts and considerable postseason experience to the table.

    5. Taylor Jordan, RHP

    This one was narrowed down following Williams' decision to relegate Ross Detwiler to the bullpen, but it's still a toss up. However, Taylor Jordan is likely to get the nod over Tanner Roark. The former ninth-round pick has fanned 20 batters in 20.2 innings and has allowed just nine earned runs.

    It's all or nothing for the two competing pitchers, as the bullpen will likely be full, and the pitcher that doesn't earn the No. 5 spot figures to be sent down.

Bullpen Preview

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    Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

    Detwiler will add a much-needed, reliable southpaw in the bullpen that was missing from last year's Washington team.

    Rafael Soriano will return as the closer this season, however, Williams will be mindful to not let him finish more than 61 games this year. As per the terms of his 2013 contract, Soriano's $14 million option will vest if he finishes 120 games or more in two years. The 12-year veteran finished 58 games in 2013.

    Should Soriano near his mark, Drew Storen or Tyler Clippard would likely take over the closing duties. Both veterans have extensive experience filling the role.

     

    Washington Bullpen:

    1) Ross Detwiler, LHP

    2) Craig Stammen, RHP

    3) Tyler Clippard, RHP

    4) Drew Storen, RHP

    5) Rafael Soriano, RHP

    6) Jerry Blevins, LHP

    7) Aaron Barrett, RHP

Prospects to Watch

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    Two prospects that have shown signs of future prominence in the Nationals organization are Zach Walters and Matt Skole. 

    Skole batted .333 with five runs batted in and four extra-base hits. The infielder is versatile and able to play at either third base or first base. After being sent down, Skole's rise to power may be on the backburner for now, but with tremendous power and an aging Ryan Zimmerman, this is one prospect Williams and Co. will have their eyes on.

    Walters is one of 10 Washington players with double-digit base hits this spring. The former ninth-round pick has batted .379 in 29 at-bats and has driven in five runs. With the re-emergence of Espinosa, however, it's very possible Walters won't make the team either. That being said, the Nationals' 10th-best prospect, according to Baseball America (via Byron Kerr of MASN), has a bright future in Washington.

Breakout Candidates

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Ramos has been through a lot over the past couple of seasons. Between a torn ACL that sidelined him for the majority of the 2012 season and being held hostage for over two days by Venezuelan kidnappers, Ramos has put the past behind him and is showing every sign of having a breakout 2014 season.

    The 2013 departure of Kurt Suzuki leaves Ramos as the most experienced catcher on the team.

    If Ramos can stay healthy, then the sky is the limit for fifth-year National.

3 Keys to Success

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    1. Driving in Runs

    The Nationals averaged leaving 6.61 runners on base per game—third-worst in MLB. Their inability to manufacture runs cost them. A staggering 42 of their 76 losses came by a margin of just two runs or less.

    To exemplify how poor Washington was at driving in runs in 2013, look no further than Strasburg. The flamethrower posted a 3.00 ERA and an opposing batting average of just .203, and he still finished with a losing record. It's the most important area that the Nationals must improve in order to be successful going forward.   

     

    2. Consistency

    Washington struggled to produce wins when they were most needed in 2013. With a longest winning streak of just seven, any momentum that the Nationals put together was quickly stymied by personal slumps, injuries or poor decision-making.

    Climbing to within as close 4.0 games from the NL Wild Card, the Nationals crumbled, losing five of their final eight contests to close the season and missing a chance at consecutive playoff appearances.

     

    3. Health

    Every team is going to take its lumps in a 162-game season. Though Washington didn't suffer any long-term debilitating injuries to any of its significant contributors, injuries just weren't timely. Between a multitude of Harper maladies, a proper rapport between the top half of the Nationals lineup was oftentimes hard to find. 

Washington Nationals vs. New York Mets Series Preview

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The Nationals will begin their 2014 campaign Monday, March 31 at 1:10 p.m. against the New York Mets at Citi Field.

    Strasburg will be on the hill against New York's Dillon Gee. The Mets' assumed Opening Day pitcher, Jon Niese, will be sidelined likely until the season's second week with an elbow injury

    Gee posted a 12-11 record and struck out a career-high 142 batters in 2013. The four-year veteran owns a 4-2 career record against the Nats and has struck out 27 batters in 39.2 innings en route to a 2.72 ERA. 

    Every assumed batter has faced Gee, and all have posted a batting average of .250 or greater against the 27-year-old right-handed pitcher besides Zimmerman, LaRoche, Rendon and Desmond. 

    Without Niese, the Nationals will likely go on to face Bartolo Colon with Gonzalez on the hill and Zack Wheeler against Jordan Zimmermann in Game 2 and Game 3 of the series. 

    In Colon's storied career, as primarily an American League pitcher, the 16-year veteran has never faced Washington.

    Wheeler, however, has had his share of hardship against the Nationals. In three career starts against Washington, the youngster has won just once in three decisions while posting a 3.93 ERA and allowing an opponent batting average of .264.

    With everyone healthy and favorable pitching matchups, Washington figures to take two or three games from the opening series. 

2014 Nationals Season Outlook

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Despite barely coming within 10.0 games of the 2013 NL East champion Atlanta Braves, the Nationals have every reason to believe they'll be competitive come September.

    An already dominant starting rotation was bolstered even further by the acquisition of Fister. It's very possible that each of the Nationals' top three starting pitchers could be an ace elsewhere.

    Washington should have every expectation of winning 85-95 games and if not earning a wild-card spot, winning the division. A worst-case scenario would have to play out for the Nationals to finish any worse than second in the NL East. 

    A best-case scenario would be a division championship and an NLCS appearance. Despite having a good core of young players and veterans, the youngsters still have a bit of growing to do before Washington can earn its first pennant. 

     

    Stats acquired via Baseball-Reference.com.

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