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2013 Preview: Washington Nationals

Mar 13, 2013, 9:44 AM EST

Bryce Harper Reuters Reuters

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up first: the Washington Nationals.

The Big Question: Are the Washington Nationals the best team in baseball?

It’s probably easier to make a case for them above any other team.

Let’s start with the rotation. It was a clear strength of the team last season, and now it has a new, improved look. Stephen Strasburg remains at the top but, unlike last year, he should be available all season. Gio Gonzalez was merely the third place Cy Young finisher last season.  Then comes Jordan Zimmermann who had perhaps the quietest sub-3.00 ERA, 195 innings pitched season in recent memory. With the departure of Edwin Jackson and John Lannan, Ross Detwiler – who, it should  be noted, turned in the Nationals’ strongest postseason start as Strasburg’s playoff rotation replacement – settles in as a strong fourth or fifth starter. Finally, there’s an intriguing gamble: free agent signing Dan Haren who, if his hip and back troubles are behind him, could prove to be the bargain signing of the offseason, providing the Nats with top-of-the-rotation quality on a relatively risk-free one- year deal.

The lineup was fourth in runs scored last year and, while there aren’t many changes apart from the addition of Denard Span in center, it’s not hard to see how it could improve. Bryce Harper is another year older, much more confident against big league pitching and is poised for a breakout season (if you don’t count what he did a 19 year-old as a breakout, which one very well could). Jayson Werth missed a lot of time last year with a bum wrist, but when he came back he was an on-base machine. With the return of Wilson Ramos the Nats have a nice 1-1A setup at catcher with Kurt Suzuki.There is not one lineup spot the Nats are punting offensively.

The bullpen, even if it remained the same as it was in 2012, would have been a strength as — its NLDS Game 5 meltdown notwithstanding — it ranked fourth in the league with a 3.20 ERA. But it didn’t remain the same. Rafael Soriano is now in the fold which allows Davey Johnson to move everyone else down a notch in terms of leverage.

Obviously they don’t play the games on paper, and if the best-looking team in the game always prevailed, the Nats wouldn’t have bowed out in the first round of the playoffs last year. But at this point in the year paper is really all we have. As far as that goes, it’s hard to say that anyone in baseball is better-constructed and more overall talented than the Washington Nationals.

What else is going on?

  • To the extent you worry about the pressure/expectations game, Davey Johnson didn’t do Nats fans any favors when he said “World Series or Bust” during the offseason. For a team that has had exactly one year of success to now be in the position where anything short of the World Series is considered a failure is, well, unusual. Johnson is a deft hand, obviously, but the Nats being anointed baseball’s best when the roster, more or less, has one playoff series under its collective belt may lead to a lot of hand-wringing if and when they go through rough patches.
  • As noted above, Strasburg is now fully armed and operational. But do they have to worry about losing Gio Gonzalez at some point this year? The early reports suggest that out of all of the players named in the Biogenesis documents Gonzalez is the least likely to be suspended for using performance enhancing drugs (at the moment it seems like everything he was given was OK under baseball’s rules), but there is something of a Damoclean sword hanging over the head of everyone who has been implicated. The Nats can’t do anything about it, but if Major League Baseball decides to suspend the Biogenesis players, the Nats could lose one of their best pitchers for 50 games.
  • Ryan Zimmerman had shoulder surgery in November. He’s apparently OK — in limited spring training action thus far he has tattooed the ball — but it’s worth watching the health of a guy who is a superstar when healthy but who has had some problems when the shoulder has acted up. And maybe the biggest worry is his throwing at third base.
  • When your expectations are “World Series or Bust” you don’t think too much about the prospects, but it’s worth noting that the Nats have an excellent one in infielder Anthony Rendon. He doesn’t have a position and his manager has noted that he needs reps in the minors — he only has one partial season and a nice Arizona Fall League stint under his belt — but if Zimmerman, Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa go down, he could get his chance.

One can look at any team and find some nits to pick. But I dare say the Nats have the fewest nits. Being named baseball’s best team in March and a buck gets you nothing more than a soda, but that’s all we can do now: I’m calling the Nats baseball’s best team.

PREDICTION: First place, National League East

  1. alang3131982 - Mar 13, 2013 at 9:48 AM

    homer

    • heyblueyoustink - Mar 13, 2013 at 9:54 AM

      He strikes me to be more Bart than homer, but whatever.

      • historiophiliac - Mar 13, 2013 at 1:18 PM

        Lisa

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 13, 2013 at 1:27 PM

        needs braces

    • hasbeen5 - Mar 13, 2013 at 11:10 AM

      Have you read this site before? Craig is clearly a Philly fan. /s

      • heyblueyoustink - Mar 13, 2013 at 1:16 PM

        Now *that* made me laugh.

  2. kevinleaptrot - Mar 13, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    Wouldn’t be surprised to see Rendon get some time at 2nd. Espinosa’s dealing with a rotator cuff issue in his non throwing shoulder. One tough dive for a ball could put him out of the lineup for a significant amount of time. Lombardozzi’s an option there too. I’d like to see the pitchers get a little better at holding runners at first, and apparently they’ve worked on that some this spring. It would be nice if the Nats didn’t strike out so much too, but at this point I may be nit picky. Looking forward to another great season from my Nats, and hopefully an extended run in the post season.

  3. Todd Boss - Mar 13, 2013 at 10:45 AM

    This is literally the first Calcaterra post about the Nats that I can recall that doesn’t include a blatant troll of Nats fans. Congratulations.

  4. spudchukar - Mar 13, 2013 at 10:54 AM

    The Nats clearly are the most gifted team in MLB, as noted they have spare parts that would be starters on most teams. It is hard to see how they do not win the NL East, even if the Braves excel, and they are young, so look for them to contend for some time. Plus they play in a division that has only one other good team, so look for them to make a run at 100 wins. The play-offs are always a crap shoot, but expect them to have home team advantages.

  5. asimonetti88 - Mar 13, 2013 at 10:58 AM

    They’re not my team, but I hope they do well. I like Harper, I like Strasburg, and their rotation is full of good pitchers who are fun to watch. They have a lot of young talent and as a baseball fan you have to enjoy watching young players develop, learn the game and realize their potential.

  6. runnerish - Mar 13, 2013 at 11:23 AM

    They’re certainly the chalk, but a starting pitching regression wouldn’t surprise me at all. And I wouldn’t write the Phillies off just yet, “only one good team in their division” wise.

    • spudchukar - Mar 13, 2013 at 12:07 PM

      The Phillies are going to struggle to play .500 ball, and if Halladay continues his decline, any chance of winning more than they lose becomes fanciful.

      • runnerish - Mar 13, 2013 at 2:07 PM

        They played .500 ball last year with three or four scrubs in the lineup every day, terrible middle relief for most of the year, no Utley and Howard until July, and very little from Halladay and Worley.

  7. runteddyrun - Mar 13, 2013 at 11:48 AM

    Natitude my friends, Natitude.

  8. buffalomafia - Mar 13, 2013 at 12:13 PM

    It’s between the Nats & Braves! Then again if I was a betting man I’d pick the Nats because the Braves always had great teams but always & I say always choked!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. joejaws75 - Mar 13, 2013 at 12:28 PM

    Wow hardball talk is really going out on a limb. Suckatude

  10. madhatternalice - Mar 13, 2013 at 1:29 PM

    The Nats can’t do anything about it, but if Major League Baseball decides to suspend the Biogenesis players, the Nats could lose one of their best pitchers for 50 games.

    How exactly would that work? I thought MLB’s drug enforcement policy only allowed individuals to be suspended if they failed an MLB-administered test. This would be second-hand information, at best.

    • someguyinva - Mar 13, 2013 at 1:54 PM

      The standards used are not that far off from those used by BBWAA members with Hall of Fame voting credentials:

      – Positive test for PEDs? That’s a suspendin’
      – Proof of possession of PEDs? That’s a suspendin’
      – Negative test for PEDs? Doesn’t matter; where there’s smoke there’s fire. That’s a suspendin’
      – Strong suspicion of possession of PEDs? That’s a suspendin’
      – Positive test but able to appeal based on chain of command? We’ll let you go this time, but watch your back, fella.

      • someguyinva - Mar 13, 2013 at 1:59 PM

        erm, chain of custody, not command.

        *derp*

    • DelawarePhilliesFan - Mar 13, 2013 at 3:47 PM

      “I thought MLB’s drug enforcement policy only allowed individuals to be suspended if they failed an MLB-administered test”

      I am answering a question – not trolling, not suggesting it will happen.

      A player can and would be suspended if a prescription for a PED surfaced. On Manny Ramirez’s second go around, he did fail a test, but he appealed that test. A prescription then turned up, and MLB suspended him for that rather then go through the appeal of the test. I can’t recall who, but there was one other suspension that was for a precription turning up – and that guy did not fail test.

      • madhatternalice - Mar 13, 2013 at 7:11 PM

        Manny! I had forgotten about that!

        Thanks…between you and someguy up there, MLB seems a little less sparkly today.

  11. jdouble777 - Mar 14, 2013 at 2:09 PM

    We will blow it again…have to pay our dues before actually being home the championship. That said, this team is oozing with young stars and probably will stay legit long enough to squeeze one out at some point. Why signing Burnett as too expensive or irrational I have not a clue. Dodgers are probably one of the best teams in the history of baseball and will probably send us packing if nobody else does first. Nonetheless, should win enough to make the season fun. Really is a treat watching Strasburg and Harper building what could be a trip to Cooperstown for them both. Should e equally interesting the most overweight President in history finish a race 81 times.

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