Washington Nationals: Breaking Down Blueprint for Winning the Division

Andrew Rocco@@Andy_RoccoContributor IMarch 22, 2013

Washington Nationals: Breaking Down Blueprint for Winning the Division

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    With an offseason to stew over a heartbreaking early playoff exit, the Washington Nationals are now out to prove they can follow up their successful 2012 campaign.

    The Nationals led the MLB in wins last season but still aggressively pursued upgrades to their roster this offseason in hopes of being even better.

    While improving upon a 98-win season may be difficult, the additions of Denard Span and Rafael Soriano should help keep the Nationals in the hunt.

    Let's face it: With the amount of talent on this roster, it may not be difficult to crack the 100-win plateau.

    With the combined experience of well-tenured manager Davey Johnson and aggressive GM Mike Rizzo, the Nationals have the nucleus to continue their successful ways this year and beyond.

    The following piece lays out a blueprint of what factors will play major parts in the process of repeating as divisional champs.

Quality Defense

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    An above-average defense in baseball is just as much part of the recipe to success as any other aspect of the game.

    A number of teams have recently decided to rebuild their lineups around the same philosophy—that defense is the key to victory. 

    This notion isn't new to baseball. But, for a number of reasons, it's one of the first and most important team-building ideas.

    It's easy to see why baseball is embracing defense at this point. The average number of runs scored per game has dropped in recent years. When fewer runs are scored, the value of preventing them increases. It's that simple.

    With that being said, the Nationals finished last season eighth overall in team fielding percentage—an impressive number that, if slightly improved upon, could have placed them in the top three in the league.

    The Nationals also finished amongst the top 10 in putouts (third), total errors committed (eighth) and defensive efficiency ratio (sixth). Defensive Efficiency Ratio is basically the rating of team defensive outs recorded in defensive opportunities.

    Manager Davey Johnson has often said an infield of Adam LaRoche, Desmond, Espinosa and Zimmerman is among the most talented he has ever been around.

    Zimmerman and LaRoche have been Gold Glove winners in the past, and the entire infield excels with above-average range at their respective positions.

    Building on last year’s quality defensive numbers will assure the Nationals' chances of staying in close games and bridging the gap to their potent bullpen, ultimately assisting them in retaining their NL East title in 2013. 

Power/Speed Combination

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    The Nationals have a handful of talented athletes who possess unique skill sets.

    The power/speed combination is perhaps one of the most dynamic duos in baseball. Scouts and major league organizations long for players who can hit for power and steal bases. 

    It could be argued that a baseball player with these capabilities is considered the perfect offensive weapon.

    Luckily for the Nats, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth and Danny Espinosa (half of their starting lineup) are all capable of reaching the 20/20 mark.

    Harper and Desmond have slightly more upside in that department, and both could flirt with 30/30 seasons.

    If this group of Nationals players manages to wreak havoc on the basepaths while still hitting for power, their opponents in the NL East will be in for a long season.

Strong Pitching

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    There's no denying the fact that the Nationals' strong pitching staff contributed to their successful regular season last year.

    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 (via baseball-reference.com). In most cases, it was 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.

    If they can match the impressive numbers they set in 2012, they should undoubtedly be in contention to win the NL East heading into this season.

    The addition of savvy veteran Dan Haren will certainly help. Although their main weak spot may be starting pitching depth, Christian Garcia could fill that void if he returns and stays healthy throughout the year. 

    Garcia has the repertoire to start, and he did it plenty in the minors, but he often had trouble staying healthy. He could be a solid backup option if someone were to go down with an injury.

    With the Atlanta Braves adding some offensive depth and the Philadelphia Phillies looking to be prominent yet again, the Nationals' pitching staff is going to have to perform if the team hopes to repeat as NL East champions.

Trusting in Davey Johnson

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    Davey Johnson is a baseball treasure with an impressive all-around career. His wisdom and overall baseball knowledge speaks volumes.

    His .564 winning percentage is first among living managers with 10 or more years of experience.

    Johnson is as close to a guaranteed Hall of Famer as you can get. Six division titles, a pennant, a World Series title, 2,283 wins and two Manager of the Year awards over a span of 16 seasons. Not too shabby.

    He will clearly be one of the most important factors, if not the most important factor, in the Nationals' blueprint for winning the NL East in 2013. As long as this team buys in like they did last season, they should be in good shape.

    Many people fail to realize the stark similarities between the world championship '86 Mets squad Davey managed and the current Washington Nationals team he oversees.

    The circumstances are certainly all too familiar for Davey. The ’85 Mets were a 98-win team on the rise that seemingly fell short to the eventual world champion Cardinals. A year later, they won 108 games en route to a championship.

    In an eerie comparison, the Nationals announced themselves as contenders last season by winning 98 games before losing the NLDS in heartbreaking fashion. 

    The '86 Mets were led by young future stars Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. The Nationals also have budding superstars in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

    The 70-year-old Johnson has no plans of scaling back his bold predictions for this team either. He has already gone on record stating that it will be a World Series or bust type of season.

    "We have the opportunity to have a special season, a very special season," he said, refusing to speak of any potential negatives, "I'm not telling these players anything that they don't believe themselves."

    It is obvious Davey believes in this team as much as he did his former '86 Mets crew, leaving no reason to doubt the possibility of the Nationals winning the NL East and potentially more.