2013 Baseball Preview: Washington Nationals

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The pieces appear to be in place for this Nationals team to play well into October

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<p> The Nationals appear to be as well equipped as anyone to survive both the marathon of the 162-game season and the sprint of October.</p>

There are many things that history could choose to remember about the 2012 Washington Nationals. There was the debut of Bryce Harper, one of the most dynamic rookies to emerge in recent years. There was the franchise’s first division title and first playoff appearance since it moved from Montreal in 2005. And there was the cementing of Davey Johnson’s credentials as a Hall of Fame manager, as he was named Manager of the Year at season’s end. However, in all likelihood, the 2012 Nationals will still be remembered years from now as the team that willingly chose to shut down its ace — when he was completely healthy. In sidelining Stephen Strasburg in such a fashion, the Nationals cited, among other things, their window for winning future titles. That window is now wide open, and the way history ultimately views the Great Strasburg Shutdown of 2012 will depend largely on how the team performs in 2013 and beyond.

Rotation
As with virtually every segment of the Nationals’ roster, the rotation is blessed with a plethora of younger, controllable players. Even with a couple of generic slop-ballers at the back end, a front three of Strasburg (presumably unleashed in 2013), lefty Gio Gonzalez and righthander Jordan Zimmermann would take this team a long way. But with the December free-agent signing of righthander Dan Haren to fill the role (held in 2012 by Edwin Jackson) of veteran innings-eater, the Nationals can boast a formidable back end of Haren and hard-throwing lefty Ross Detwiler — ensuring that, no matter where an opponent catches the Nationals in their starting rotation, they will be facing a tough night at the plate. An intriguing option for depth is flamethrower Christian Garcia, who emerged as a bullpen force late in 2012.
 
Bullpen
The shocking end of the Nationals’ 2012 season, in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Cardinals, could leave lasting marks on young closer Drew Storen, who blew a two-run ninth-inning lead after the Nationals were one strike away from advancing. While Johnson and the Nationals still believe in Storen, the team signed free agent Rafael Soriano to be the 2013 closer. Two of his 42 saves for the Yankees last season came prior to Mariano Rivera tearing his ACL in May. Storen joins Tyler Clippard to form what could be the most dominant setup tandem in baseball. Righthanders Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus, stalwarts in 2012, will return to their middle-relief roles. Lefty Zach Duke, who pitched well during a September call-up in 2012, is expected to fill the long reliever role held last year by Tom Gorzelanny.

Middle Infield
Although the Nationals explored trading away second baseman Danny Espinosa this winter — less an indictment of Espinosa than a sign of how highly they regard backup Steve Lombardozzi — the team will return its double-play combo of Espinosa and shortstop Ian Desmond in 2013, and will be perfectly happy to do so. Switched out of the leadoff spot midway through the season (into a more comfortable role as the primary sixth hitter), Desmond had a breakout season that saw him earn his first All-Star appearance and Silver Slugger award (he was also a finalist for a Gold Glove), while becoming the emotional leader of the clubhouse. Espinosa strikes out too much and tends to go into long, deep funks at the plate, but he could also be poised for the same sort of breakout in 2013 that Desmond had in 2012.

Corners
After reviving his career with a huge 2012 season (33 homers, 100 RBIs, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, sixth in MVP voting), veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche paid a visit to free agency seeking a long-term deal, but was victimized by the draft-pick compensation rules in the new CBA, and ultimately returned to the Nationals on a two-year deal. LaRoche’s return gives the Nationals a top glove man and a critical left-handed bat in the middle of their lineup. Meantime, Ryan Zimmerman returns at third base following a strange 2012 that is best viewed as being divided into pre- and post-cortisone segments. On June 23, he received his first shot of the painkiller for his ailing shoulder, and his sagging numbers immediately took off. In the end, the popular Zimmerman wound up with a season in line with his career norms, then had a clean-up surgery on the shoulder immediately after the season.

Outfield
The Nationals had been searching for years for a dependable leadoff hitter/center fielder, and over the winter they finally found their man in Denard Span, acquired via trade with Minnesota. Not only is Span a talented offensive and defensive player, but the Nationals also can envision other pieces falling into place with him on board: Harper (in left) and Jayson Werth (in right) move seamlessly to the corners, while Werth can be freed from the leadoff spot. If all three stay healthy and perform to expectations, the Harper-Span-Werth outfield could be among the best in baseball.

Catching
Kurt Suzuki, acquired in an August trade with Oakland, was supposed to have been little more than a two-month stopgap, filling an acute down-the-stretch need but ceding the starting job in 2013 when starter Wilson Ramos returns from injury. However, Suzuki played a critical role in the Nationals’ run to the NL East title. Lest we forget, however — Ramos was considered one of the brightest young catchers in the game before a season-ending knee injury in May. The two catchers proved in spring training that they were deserving of the starting job, and Johnson has decided to begin the season using Ramos and Suzuki every other day, keeping both fresh.

Bench
The Nationals were blessed with a potent, highly functional bench in 2012 and will be looking to reconstruct a similar one this year. To that end, they signed Chad Tracy, their top pinch-hitter in 2012, to a one-year extension for 2013, and they will return Lombardozzi, talented fourth outfielder Roger Bernadina and outfield/first base backup Tyler Moore as well.

Management
The highly publicized shouting match between Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo last summer was less a sign of discord within the braintrust than a reminder that these are two bull-headed men who — with plenty of justification — believe strongly in their own abilities. They also happen to like and respect each other. Although Johnson will be 70 on Opening Day and has already indicated that 2013 will be his final year, he remains at the top of his game mentally. (And if Johnson does indeed step down after 2013, the Nationals appear to have already identified his successor in bench coach Randy Knorr.) Rizzo, too, has ascended to the upper tier of his profession, turning a perennial loser into a well-run, self-sustaining, winning organization that is the envy of his peers.

Final Analysis
When Johnson blurted “World Series or bust” during the December 2012 Winter Meetings, he wasn’t being boastful or jingoistic. He was merely stating the obvious: This is a team built to win it all. In fact, all along 2013 was the Nationals’ target for contending — it just so happens that they arrived a year early in 2012. One could even argue that the franchise was caught unprepared for what befell them, based on the lack of a better plan for handling Strasburg’s innings limit. It is always dangerous to define your season as requiring a World Series appearance in order to qualify as a success, since the postseason is a crapshoot to some degree. But at least on paper, the Nationals appear to be as well equipped as anyone to survive both the marathon of the 162-game season and the sprint of October.

Lineup
CF Denard Span (L)
The type of pure leadoff hitter the Nationals had been lacking; slapped 38 doubles and stole 17 bases in ’12.
RF Jayson Werth (R)
Thrived as leadoff hitter, but Nats believe he’ll be a perfect fit behind Span.
LF Bryce Harper (L)
After historic rookie season, ceiling in 2013 appears limitless for the 20-year-old outfielder.
3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
Played through shoulder injury, put up representative numbers, with 25 HRs and 95 RBIs.
1B Adam LaRoche (L)
Silver Slugger/Gold Glove exacta spoke to his immense value to the Nationals in 2012
SS Ian Desmond (R)
Arguably the best shortstop in the majors last season; had career highs in average (.292), HRs (25), RBIs (73).
2B Danny Espinosa (S)
Power numbers dipped slightly from 2011 rookie season, but Nationals aren’t giving up on him.
C Wilson Ramos (R)
Will need to earn job back after suffering ACL tear last May that ended his season.

Bench
C Kurt Suzuki (R)
Cameo after August trade was enough to earn shot at regular playing time in 2013.
OF Roger Bernadina (L)
Versatile glove-man and emerging hitter could start for many teams; valuable reserve for the Nats.
UT Tyler Moore (R)
Pure hitter was a crucial part of 2012 bench; hit 10 home runs in only 156 at-bats.
IF Chad Tracy (L)
Davey Johnson’s favorite pinch-hitter (12 hits in 46 at- bats) in 2012 returns in same role.
UT Steve Lombardozzi (S)
Steady infielder added outfield to his duties in 2012, increasing his value to the Nats.

Rotation
RH  Stephen Strasburg
The former No. 1 overall pick is poised for huge 2013 after being freed from controversial innings leash.
LH  Gio Gonzalez
Won 21 games in his first season with the team, kept command issues at bay, kept clubhouse loose.
RH  Jordan Zimmermann
Despite bringing heat, ranked eighth in the National League with only 2.0 walks per nine innings.
RH  Dan Haren
Has averaged 220 innings pitched since 2005, though injuries plagued him in 2012.
LH  Ross Detwiler
On any other staff, he’d be a No. 2 or No. 3, but the Nats are glad to have this 10-game winner in No. 5 hole.

Bullpen
RH  Rafael Soriano (Closer)
Saved 42 games and blew just four last season for the Yankees.
RH  Drew Storen
Had a 0.989 WHIP in regular season; 2012 season was going swell until ninth inning of Game 5 of NLDS.
RH  Tyler Clippard
Had strong run as closer in Storen’s absence, but the Nationals value him as a setup man.
RH   Craig Stammen
Paced the Nats’ 2012 bullpen with 88.1 innings pitched; only gave up 70 hits but walked 36.
RH  Ryan Mattheus
Trusted seventh-inning man allowed opposing batters to hit .161 with runners in scoring position.
LH  Zach Duke
Longtime starter shined in bullpen role last September, and earned himself a big-league contract for 2013.
RH  Henry Rodriguez
Needs to cure wildness (22 walks in 29.1 IP in 2012), but Nats still believe in his power arm.

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