From dark horse darlings to front-running championship contenders, the Nationals spent big again this off-season to make themselves the clear favorite in the National League. Will all their moves pay off or will they be this year's big budget disappointment?
Depth Chart (as of 2/22)
C: Kurt Suzuki
1B: Adam LaRoche
2B: Danny Espinosa
SS: Ian Desmond
3B: Ryan Zimmerman
LF: Bryce Harper
CF: Denard Span
RF: Jayson Werth
SP: Stephen Strasburg
SP: Gio Gonzalez
SP: Jordan Zimmermann
SP: Dan Haren
SP: Ross Detwiler
CL: Rafael Soriano
Considering that the Nationals were just one out away from advancing to the NLCS, it was only natural that they chose to sign Rafael Soriano and install him as closer in place Drew Storen, giving the Nats one of the deepest, though right-hand dominant, bullpens in the league. But Soriano was only one of many additions. The team signed Dan Haren to a one-year make-good contract to bolster their rotation. If Haren can bounce back to his old form and overcome the back problems that hindered him last season, Washington may also have the deepest rotation in the league. Arguably the biggest move of them all though was them finally consummating a trade for Denard Span. Span had been linked to Washington in trade rumors for what seemed like eons, but it wasn't until this winter that they finally pulled the trigger. It is surprising it took that long because the two things the Nationals lineup needed most was leadoff man and a true center fielder. Span gave them both, allowing Bryce Harper to move to a corner outfield spot that better suits him and forcing Jayson Werth back into the middle of the order where his bat profiles better.
In re-signing Adam LaRoche and trading for Denard Span, the Nats made Mike Morse a spare part, but rather than keep him for depth, they traded him in a three-way deal to Seattle in exchange for prospects. Washington then suffered a mass exodus of their left-handed relievers as Sean Burnett, Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny all bolted via free agency. They also took a big hit to their starting pitching depth with Edwin Jackson moving on to the Cubs, John Lannan signing in Philadelphia and Chien-Ming Wang seemingly no longer invited back, though he does remain a free agent. The clear theme here is that while the Nats were able to replace the bigger names like Morse and Jackson, their overall organizational depth is much thinner than it was previously, making them vulnerable to the injury bug.
There is no doubt that the Nationals have had quite the run of of young talent bolster their team the last few years, but it looks like that is going to end this season. Not only have the Nationals traded away a lot of prospects in recent seasons, but they also simply have too talented a roster to move anyone aside for a rookie at this point. The only rookie that seems even remotely likely to make an impact at this point is pitcher Christian Garcia, but he would only come into play should the Nationals suffer an injury to someone in the rotation.
For the time being, Kurt Suzuki is the starter at catcher, but that could change once Wilson Ramos proves that he is fully recovered from last season's ACL tear. It will be interesting to see how that competition shakes out as Suzuki has the veteran experience on his side while the younger Ramos has a much higher upside. Similarly, Ross Detwiler has a firm grasp on the number five starter spot with nobody really around to challenge him. However, Washington has been said to have interest in signing Javier Vazquez to come in and bump Detwiler to the bullpen as the team's de facto southpaw reliever. If that doesn't happen, Zach Duke, Will Ohman, Bill Bray and any other lefty with a pulse that accidentally stumbles into camp will vie to become Washington's designated LOOGY.
As we all know far too well, the Nationals have a way of creating self-imposed injury concerns. There is no indication that they are going to one again limit Stephen Strasburg's innings, but it also isn't entirely clear if they are going to completely release their grip on his reins. The rest of the injury concerns on the Washington roster, and there are several, are very real and could really put their depth to the test. New acquisition Denard Span is not far removed from having some pretty significant post-concussion problems after a collision in the field in 2011, not to mention battled some should problems down the stretch last season. Ryan Zimmerman will always be a red flag thanks to his lengthy injury history. Jayson Werth was once again plagued by wrist problems last year and, given his history, those issues threaten to rear their ugly head again at any time. Danny Espinosa played with a torn rotator cuff all of last season and claims he is better now, though he never did have surgery to repair the problem. Finally, the reason the Nats were able to land Dan Haren on a one-year deal was that he was plagued by back and hip issues. Supposedly he is healthy, but there are also rumors that the Cubs scuttled their near trade for Haren early in the off-season over concerns relating to his health.
Can the Nationals handle the attention and pressure that comes with being a World Series favorite?
This one is easy. All the Nationals need is for everyone to stay relatively healthy and then they'll cruise to 100 wins on the back of an amazing season from Stephen Strasburg that establishes him as the best pitcher alive and Bryce Harper coming into his own as a legitimate superstar and MVP candidate.
Injuries ravage the Nationals rotation to the point that they are signing guys off the street just to fill it out. The lineup craters as Ryan Zimmerman is slowed by his balky shoulder, Werth by his bum wrist and Harper shows that not even budding stars are immune to the curse of the sophomore slump. Those setbacks and the weight of World Series expectations proves to me too much for the young team to handle as they limp their way to an 85-win season and miss out on the playoffs entirely.
What's scary is that their realistic scenario isn't all that far off from their best case scenario. On paper, they have arguably the best rotation in baseball. Pair that with a deep and highly talented back end of the bullpen and the Nationals become a run prevention nightmare for opponents. They should probably expect some regression in the lineup from guys like LaRoche and Desmond, but with a healthy Werth, a more experienced Harper and Span providing a catalyst, the Nats score more than enough runs to support their stellar pitching staff. They'll spend most of the season looking at the Braves in their rearview mirror but ultimately pull away in the end and finish with 98 wins and the best record in baseball.