There may have been no bigger disappointment in MLB last year than the Nationals. Many fans and analysts picked them to win the World Series, but a young team buckled under those heavy expectations and fell behind in the NL East race early. The Nats made a late run at a wild-card spot, going 18-9 in September. But it was ultimately too much ground to make up.
Washington comes into this season again looking like a World Series contender, carrying a stronger roster than it did last year. The starting rotation is deeper and young stars like Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon should be even better after another season of development. First-year skippers like Matt Williams don't often get the opportunity to manage such a team. Though he'll surely make some mistakes as he learns on the job, a new voice and fresh approach could be exactly what this team needs.
Depth Chart (as of 2/13)
C: Wilson Ramos
1B: Adam LaRoche
2B: Anthony Rendon
3B: Ryan Zimmerman
SS: Ian Desmond
LF: Bryce Harper
CF: Denard Span
RF: Jayson Werth
SP: Stephen Strasburg
SP: Gio Gonzalez
SP: Jordan Zimmermann
SP: Doug Fister
SP: Ross Detwiler
CL: Rafael Soriano
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made one of the best trades of the offseason, snagging Doug Fister from the Tigers in exchange for utilityman Steve Lombardozzi, left-hander Ian Krol and pitching prospect Robbie Ray. Fister has often been underrated as a fourth starter, which is where he lined up in Detroit. He'll have the same role with the Nats, though he's been one of the 10 best pitchers in MLB over the past three seasons. Washington also added outfield depth by signing Nate McLouth, who should also be the top left-handed bat off the bench. And Jerry Blevins gives the bullpen a much needed left-handed specialist.
Another indication of the Nats' strong offseason is the fact that the team didn't lose anyone of significance. Lombardozzi going to the Tigers in the Fister trade affects the infield depth, as he was able to fill in at second and third base, in addition to left field. But Danny Espinosa could fill that utility role. If he continues to struggle hitting, the Nats have several other infielders in the system that could help out, such as Jamey Carroll, Mike Fontenot and Will Rhymes. Outfielder Roger Bernadina signed with the Reds, but Washington upgraded by signing McLouth. The same goes for pitcher Dan Haren, who was a huge disappointment and wasn't re-signed. Fister more than makes up for his departure.
With the major league roster already loaded, there doesn't seem to be much room — or need — for a rookie to make an impact this season with the Nationals. Of course, during the 162-game grind, players get hurt or need rest, giving an opportunity for some rookies to fill in. Infielder Zach Walters had a huge year at Triple-A Syracuse last season, slugging 29 homers with 77 RBI. He could fill in at shortstop and third base, or be a bench bat at some point during the season. Outfielder Brian Goodwin is expected to begin the season in Syracuse and could get a shot. Pitcher A.J. Cole finished last season in Double-A Harrisburg and could possibly fill in if the Nats need a spot starter.
There doesn't figure to be much suspense during the spring in regards to competing for positions. The Nationals' starting lineup is pretty locked in. Most of the position battles should be for bench spots. Who will take over Lombardozzi's utility role? As mentioned earlier, Espinosa looks like the favorite there with his ability to play second base and shortstop. But Jamey Carroll could give him a run. Tyler Moore should take over Chad Tracy's spot on the bench as a reserve first baseman, but the Nats could be intrigued by Walters' bat instead.
Ross Detwiler is currently penciled in as the fifth starter and pitched well in that role in 2012. But Tanner Roark was extremely impressive in five starts last season, going 3-1 with a 1.74 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 31 innings. Overall, he was 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA, walking only 11 batters in 53.2 innings. Ross Ohlendorf could also be in the mix. The 31-year-old made seven starts last year, going 3-1 with a 3.52 ERA. Overall, he made 16 apperances, compiling a 3.28 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 60.1 innings.
Ryan Zimmerman is always an injury concern. Last year was no exception, as the Nats' third baseman missed part of April with a hamstring injury. (On the bright side, that allowed Washington to get a look at Anthony Rendon early in the year.) Zimmerman has suffered oblique and shoulder injuries in recent seasons, which affected his ability to make throws across the infield. He's played fewer than 150 games in each of the past four years. With that history, it's important for the Nats to carry someone on the roster to fill in at third base.
Stephen Strasburg made 30 starts last season, but suffered an oblique injury and dealt with forearm issues along the way. The forearm is of particular concern, considering Strasburg required Tommy John surgery to repair his right elbow. The Nationals have always been cautious with their prized arm, however, and have been quick to pull him from a game or rest him whenever any sort of pain or discomfort develops. That's not going to change, and Strasburg may never be a pitcher who makes 32 or 33 starts as a result.
Both Harper and Jayson Werth seem to end up injured from the way they throw their bodies around the outfield and run into walls. At 34 years old, Werth is more of a concern to break down during the long season. Having McLouth and Scott Hairston available to fill in thus becomes a nice luxury, as the Nats can rest Werth when needed.
Harper struggled with knee and hip injuries throughout last season. The knee injury turned out to be worse than originally thought, eventually requiring surgery, and Harper says he learned a lesson about playing through injury because of it. Hopefully, he also learned to be more aware of his surroundings and not run face-first into outfield walls, risking a concussion.
World Series champions. That was the expectation last year, perhaps sooner than Rizzo intended as he was building this team. Washington's success in 2012 likely accelerated whatever plan Rizzo had in place (and was surely a factor in the decision to shut Strasburg down). The should benefit from the experience of being a favorite last season. If the team doesn't suffer a major injury (especially in the starting rotation), get bounce-back seasons from Denard Span and Adam LaRoche, Williams has a smooth first year managing a team viewed as a World Series contender, and Rizzo makes whatever deal is necessary to bolster his team at the trade deadline, the Nationals should win 95 or more games and challenge the Cardinals and Dodgers for the NL pennant.
The Nats didn't handle their front-runner status well last season, perhaps indicating that this team might not respond to heavy expectations well. In 2012, Washington snuck up on the competition and emerged as a surprise contender. That's not going to happen again for years to come. Williams could show his inexperience in the dugout, especially in handling the bullpen and overusing relievers. He'll have to show a deft touch in dealing with Harper and Strasburg, who have shown to be temperamental and moody. And if LaRoche and Span start slow again, that gives him another problem to address.
But most importantly, if the Nationals once again struggle with injuries and can't consistently field a regular lineup — or worse, lose a top starting pitcher for a significant length — they could fall behind the Braves early on again and spend the rest of the season climbing out of that hole.
Once again, the Nats should battle with the Braves for the top spot in the NL East. However, this year, the runner-up should be in good position to nab one of the league's wild-card spots. With Atlanta losing key pieces in Brian McCann and Tim Hudson, hoping for rebound seasons from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla, and facing questions about the back end of its starting rotation, Washington looks like even more of a favorite to win the division than last year and figures to be one of the top three teams in the league.