The 7 Most Important Washington Nationals Storylines to Follow

Michael Nargi@NargOnSportsSenior Analyst IMarch 1, 2013

The 7 Most Important Washington Nationals Storylines to Follow

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    The 2013 season has the potential to be historic in D.C., as the Washington Nationals look to defend the NL East and win the World Series. 

    The Nationals might have caught some teams off guard last season with their dominance, but this year they will have targets on their backs. They are worthy of it after all, entering the season with Bryce Harper in the starting lineup and Stephen Strasburg ready to throw over 200 innings.

    There are many pieces to the puzzle this season, but if they all come together perfectly, there will be something special happening in Washington in late October.

Who Will Start the Season as the Closer Might Not Finish the Year as the Closer

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    Rafael Soriano filled in for Mariano Rivera and the New York Yankees last season and earned himself a two-year, $28 million deal from the Nationals. Although Soriano will close, he will have a full bullpen with plenty of experience waiting to take the reigns should he stumble.

    Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen both closed games last season for the Nationals and have excelled in set-up roles. With proven success in both roles, Clippard and Storen will give Davey Johnson options if Soriano is not able to close out games.

    Soriano might start the year as the closer, but come September, whether performance-based or injury related, another pitcher might step in and take his spot.

Bryce Harper's Growth

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    Bryce Harper's sophomore campaign will be one of the most exciting aspects of the Nationals this season. 

    Will he continue his growth and solidify his reputation as a legitimate 30/30 threat, or will he take a step back and have a sophomore slump? Harper might be the biggest factor in the equation this season as the Nationals look to advance past the first round of the playoffs.

    He is such a dynamic player that his sole performance in a playoff game might energize the team to go deeper in the postseason.

Stephen Strasburg's Ability to Handle Pressure

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    Stephen Strasburg is rested and ready to pitch an entire season. The rest of the NL was able to breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Strasburg would not be a force in the playoffs last year. Unfortunately for everyone else in the NL, he will not be on any kind of limit this season.

    Will Strasburg be able to pitch every fifth day and perform the way he did before being shut down? Or will he collapse from the pressure of knowing that he has to perform as the ace of the rotation until October.

    Strasburg seemed to lose focus last season as he neared closer and closer to his innings limit. This was a glimpse into his psyche and showed that he is human. He does indeed feel the pressure that everyone is placing on him. 

    He will lead this team to the playoffs if he can embrace the opportunity and block out the hype and expectations.

Gio Gonzalez and the Miami-Based "Clinic"

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    The PED scandals that might emerge this season are unpredictable. Although it appears that Gio Gonzalez avoided too much controversy this time, who knows if he will eventually be involved in another scandal of this nature sometime again. 

    Today, Gonzalez is clean, but as easily as he was entangled in these allegations, he can be involved in others' untrue allegations sometime in the near future. 

Ryan Zimmerman's Health

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    Ryan Zimmerman had a first half plagued by shoulder problems and had to have surgery in the offseason. As a part of getting Zimmerman ready for the regular season, Davey Johnson will use him as a DH in spring training for a couple of weeks, according to Mark Zuckerman of CSNWashington.com.

    Zimmerman can have a monster year if he truly is healthy. He proved in the second half of last season that when he is not in pain, he can put up some of the best numbers in baseball.

Will Anthony Rendon Make the MLB This Season?

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    Anthony Rendon would be able to get a shot at the big leagues if Zimmerman has another year plagued by injury. He might be on the fast track to the majors if he continues to hit as he did in the Arizona Fall League: .338 with 10 doubles and 11 RBI.

    It is something to keep an eye on, especially if Zimmerman ends up on the DL at any point.

Dan Haren's Transition to the NL

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    In 2010, Dan Haren made 21 starts for the Arizona Diamondbacks and posted a 4.60 ERA. That was the last time he pitched in the National League. He has started 106 games in the NL and 180 games in the AL, and his statistics are very comparable overall. 

    So can Haren pitch in the NL again despite his struggles in Arizona in 2010?

    Haren has averaged 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings in the NL, and 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings in the AL. If he can strike out batters at this rate while maintaining a low ERA, he will have a huge year as the Nationals' fourth starter.