This series will evaluate one team per day, starting on January 23, 2013 and ending on February 22, 2013 (the first game of spring training). It is based on last season's performance, offseason changes since and the author's outlook for the team in 2013. Please keep in mind that rosters can, and will, change before Opening Day. We started in the AL East and now go to the NL side, starting in the East and going in alphabetical order. Next up, the Washington Nationals.
LHP Bill Bray, RHP A.J. Cole, RHP Rafael Soriano, RHP Ross Ohlendorf, RHP Dan Haren, OF Denard Span
LHP Sean Burnett, LHP Tom Gorzelanny, LHP Michael Gonzalez, LHP John Lannan, RHP Chien-Ming Wang, RHP Edwin Jackson, OF Mark DeRosa, OF Michael Morse, C Jesus Flores
Why they will improve this year
The 98-win Nationals improving is a scary thought. It's also a very legitimate possibility. The Nats sacrificed a first-round draft pick to solidify the end of their bullpen with Soriano, took a high reward flier on Haren, upgraded the outfield with Span and snatched back a top prospect who they originally drafted.
And other than the powerful bat of Morse and above-average lefty arm in Burnett, the Nationals aren't really crying over anyone that moved on this winter. Long story short, the Nationals improved upon the fourth-best offense (by average) and the third-best bullpen (by ERA) in the National League from 2012.
They brought back Adam LaRoche to play first base, ensuring some left-handed pop in the heart of the order. I'm a big believer in Haren having a bounce-back year on his return to the relatively pitcher-friendly NL. But even if he doesn't pan out, Washington's presumably getting a full season out of Stephen Strasburg.
With a filthy rotation, strong bullpen and improved offense, the Nats could make a real run at surpassing 100 wins in 2013, even with tough competition in their own division from Atlanta. Harper will get another year in the bigs, but the guys I'm looking forward to watching grow are the double play combo of Ian Desmond at shortstop and Danny Espinosa at second base.
It's always difficult to improve on a season in which you get close to the century mark in wins, but if anyone is going to do it next year, it's the Nationals.
Why they will regress this year
Even though the Nats made vast improvements this offseason, it's almost unreasonable to expect a 98-win juggernaut to get even better. And for everything the front office did right this winter, another thing has gone wrong. Let's start with the pitching, which was their heart and soul in 2012.
By now, everyone has heard the news of another PED scandal brewing in South Florida. Included in the list of names is last year's ace Gio Gonzalez. While nothing has been proven yet, and Gonzalez took to Twitter immediately after the report to deny any involvement, it's hard to practice "innocent until proven guilty" these days.
When Gonzalez is included on a list with proven PED users like Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon, even the most optimistic fan must realize that a suspension and fallout could be around the corner. I worship Gonzalez as a fan, but if he does get busted for this, it will really rock the foundation that the Nationals are built on.
On a less depressing note, the only other way I see the Nationals faltering in 2013 is if the injury bug bites hard, or young players like Harper fail to improve in their second full seasons (we saw the sophomore slump with Jason Heyward in 2011 and Eric Hosmer in 2012). Haren, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman all have long injury histories, so keeping them healthy will have to be a priority. Otherwise, Washington may be in trouble.
The outlook for 2013
Even with the potential Gonzalez drama, I'm a big believer in the Nationals this year. If Gonzalez misses 50 games, I don't expect the Nats to replace that kind of production in the rotation. But, they can at least plug the hole a bit by moving a guy like Cole to the bullpen and bumping a reliever to the rotation. A rotation of Strasburg, Jordan Zimermann, Haren, Ross Detwiler and a fifth is still pretty solid.
What I'm most excited about are the offseason additions the Nationals brought in to bolster the lineup and the bullpen. Re-signing LaRoche was a huge deal, considering he was the primary source of left-handed power in that lineup.
I think Span and Soriano will fit in perfectly and really take off in D.C., and I have no problem saying that Harper, Espinosa, Desmond and Detwiler will continue to improve. I like the depth the Nationals have, as well as the good balance of power, speed, defense and pitching.
This really is a team I think will eclipse the 100-win mark, even if Gonzalez does miss 10 starts. With him back, 105 is a possibility. You may call me too optimistic, but when taking into account the improvements made to an already terrifying team, it's well within the realm of possibility.
It's the opinion of this writer that the Nationals hit triple digits in the win column and fend off a feisty Braves team to repeat as NL East champions.
Potential changes before Opening Day
As previously mentioned, Gonzalez could face a suspension if he is charged with using PEDs. In that instance, the Nationals would probably at least pursue the option of adding another pitcher. It could be Javier Vasquez, who has apparently been blowing up the winter leagues.
But if GM Mike Rizzo wants to go with another southpaw, they are short on options. Other than promoting from within the organization, the Nats might have to use now-blocked first base prospect Chris Marrero as trade bait to land a back-of-the-rotation lefty starter.
Biggest surprise: Dan Haren
Biggest disappointment: Jayson Werth
Bold prediction: 20-year-old Harper hits 30 home runs in his second full season
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Bryce Harper, LF
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4. Adam LaRoche, 1B
5. Jayson Werth, RF
6. Ian Desmond, SS
7. Danny Espinosa, 2B
8. Kurt Suzuki, C
1. Gio Gonzalez, LHP
2. Stephen Strasburg, RHP
3. Jordan Zimermann, RHP
4. Ross Detwiler, LHP
5. Dan Haren, RHP
Projected finish: 100-62, 1st place
For more preseason evaluations:
You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jamblinman.