The Nationals ended the 2011 season with their best record since their first year in Washington, a healthy Stephen Strasburg and plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their chances to compete in the NL East in 2012. That feeling might have been dampened somewhat by the aggressive moves the Marlins made during the offseason, but for the first time since their surprise pennant chase in 2005, the Nationals aren't an afterthought in the division. They'll have a healthy Strasburg with Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, whom the Nationals acquired in a five-player trade with Oakland last December. A rotation like that makes them a wild card dark horse.
It's been a long time since the Nationals have gone into a season hoping for anything other than mediocrity from their rotation. With Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez at the front of the group, the Nationals could have one of the best young pitching staffs in the game. The team has been waiting for a healthy Strasburg since his sensational 2010 rookie season ended with a torn elbow ligament. He pitched very well in five starts last September and will likely be the Opening Day starter. Zimmermann, who also had Tommy John surgery in August 2009, came back strong last year, posting a 3.18 ERA in 161.1 innings. The Nationals traded four players to get Gonzalez from Oakland, but the 26-year-old lefthander could turn out to be worth it; he's had a sub-3.25 ERA each of the last two years. Edwin Jackson should prove to be one of the best No. 4 starters in the game. He has a string of five seasons of 31-plus starts with five different organizations. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 208 innings and 12 wins. Not bad numbers from the fourth spot in the rotation. John Lannan will man the fifth spot, at least until Chien-Ming Wang recovers from a balky hamstring.
The Nationals' relief corps has been the strongest part of the team for the past two seasons, and there's no reason to think that it won't be solid again in 2012, although it may get off to a slow start. Drew Storen, who had 43 saves in his first season as closer, has experienced some elbow soreness and will begin the season on the disabled list. He shouldn't miss more than a few weeks. The righthander developed better control of his fastball as the year went on, which made his slider even more effective. He'll be helped by roommate Tyler Clippard, whose outstanding performance as the setup man helped him earn his first All-Star nod in 2011. Clippard became Washington's option in all kinds of tense situations, and his rising fastball and odd arm action helped him strike out 104 batters in 88.1 innings. Washington signed Brad Lidge to fill the seventh-inning role, but he may be called on to close a few games until Storen returns. The Nationals also have hard-throwing Henry Rodriguez, who was effective at the end of the season when he developed better control, and Sean Burnett, who was the team's best reliever in 2010 and pitched well late last season after struggling early. With those relievers, as well as Ryan Mattheus and recent acquisition Ryan Perry, the Nationals have plenty of power arms to back up their improving rotation. Lefthanders Ross Detwiler and Tom Gorzelanny will complete the pen.
If there's one area where the Nationals have some unknowns, it's here. They have two talented young players in shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa, but each one has some questions to answer after the 2011 season. It's likely Desmond will begin the season in the leadoff spot, where he hit well at the end of last season, but he got off to a slow start and wound up hitting eighth early in the year. The Nationals also want to see him continue to cut down on his errors; he committed 23 in 2011 after 34 in 2010. Espinosa set a major league record for homers by a rookie second baseman in the first half of the season, blasting 16 before the All-Star break. But he wore down, hitting only five homers in the second half. Still, Espinosa (who finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year race) has the chance to be a special player in his second season. The Nationals have plenty of talent and athleticism up the middle. They'd just like to see more consistency and plate discipline.
One of the reasons for the Nationals' optimism in 2012 is the presence of a healthy Ryan Zimmerman. The third baseman missed nearly two months in 2011 after tearing an abdominal muscle, and he posted career lows in home runs (12) and RBIs (49). Zimmerman also tinkered with his throwing motion to prevent further injury and had developed a more consistent delivery by the end of the year. The Nationals will also welcome the return of Adam LaRoche, who was gone for the season by May. LaRoche developed a tear in his shoulder in spring training and had surgery to repair a torn labrum. He hit just .172 in 43 games, unable to turn on pitches he would normally be able to drive. He played impressive defense, though, and can probably be counted on for 20-25 home runs if he's healthy. Chris Marrero, who played well in a call-up last September, tore his hamstring playing in the Dominican winter league and could miss a good chunk of the season.
At the beginning of last season, the Nationals were counting on Jayson Werth to carry their lineup and were simply hoping Michael Morse could continue making progress after a surprising 2010 season. By the end of it, Morse was finishing a breakout campaign, getting himself on a pair of MVP ballots, while Werth was slogging through a disappointing first year of his $126 million contract. The Nationals will have to hope he rebounds in 2012, both to justify his enormous contract and to fortify a lineup that was too often unable to come up with big hits in 2011. Morse, who was the Nationals' best offensive player in 2011, could see himself shuttled around to a number of different positions in 2012. Morse could start in left or right field, and could also see time at first base if LaRoche isn't fully recovered from shoulder surgery. That is, after Morse himself recovers from a torn lat. Roger Bernadina will get the first crack at the center field job, though it's possible Rick Ankiel will play quite a bit. At some point - and likely this season - the Nationals must make room in center field for the 19-year-old Bryce Harper. He is starting the season at Triple-A Syracuse to hone his skills in center, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him in the nation's capital by mid-May.
The Nationals had accumulated a stable of young catchers in recent years but had never really trusted the position to one of them. That will likely change in 2012, when Wilson Ramos gets most of the playing time. Ramos, who finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year race, gives the Nationals a potent bat and solid arm behind the plate. He'll be backed up by Jesus Flores, the one-time catcher of the future who has been relegated to reserve duty because of injuries. Flores, though, is a good hitter with men on base and could start if Ramos got hurt. He could also be a trade chip.
Manager Davey Johnson wanted the Nationals to add more offense to their bench at the end of 2011. But other than Mark DeRosa or Xavier Nady, it's questionable whether the team has that. Steve Lombardozzi could be a solid utility infielder. But the Nationals still lack a difference-making bat for the late innings. When Morse is healthy, Ankiel provides an athletic fourth outfielder.
Johnson, who took over last June when Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned, got the Nationals playing well at the end of the season and decided to return for 2012 at age 69. His handling of the bullpen can be odd at times - his practice of keeping two long relievers seems a bit dated and occasionally left him with poor matchups last year - but he has the respect of his players and the cachet that comes with a World Series ring. In bench coach Randy Knorr and third base coach Bo Porter, Johnson could be grooming a pair of potential successors for when he eventually decides to step down. But at the end of last season, he seemed like a man who wanted to enjoy the ride a little longer.
As tough as the Marlins have made the NL East, and as many questions as the Nationals could still have about the middle of their lineup, it's possible the team is still a year and a couple moves away from really making noise. But there's enough here, particularly in the rotation and the bullpen, that it's not hard to see the team making a push if Werth rebounds and Desmond helps the team solve its long-standing problem at the top of the lineup. Consider the Nationals a candidate to win 80-85 games, keep themselves on the periphery of the playoff race - especially considering two wild cards - and create a legitimate buzz about baseball in the nation's capital for the first time since the team's inaugural 2005 season in Washington.
SS Ian Desmond (R)
Improved toward the end of the season to raise average to .253; will get first shot to lead off.
2B Danny Espinosa (S)
Nationals will look for more consistency in his second year; has power, great range and arm.
3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
Team's best player missed 61 games in 2011; looking for big year after abdominal surgery.
LF Michael Morse (R)
Hit .303 with 31 homers in breakout season; might be Nationals' best power hitter. Will start the season on the shelf.
RF Jayson Werth (R)
Needs to rebound after disappointing 2011 and show he's worth his $126 million deal; hit .232 with 20 homers.
1B Adam LaRoche (L)
Back from shoulder surgery, he's looking to get back to typical production; .265, 20-25 homers, 85 RBIs.
C Wilson Ramos (R)
Finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year vote; could hit 16-18 homers with solid defense behind the plate.
CF Roger Bernadina (L)
Tons of talent, but can he ever put it together? Probably his last chance with Washington to play consistently.
OF Rick Ankiel (L)
The athletic defensive outfielder had just one home run in 88 plate appearances against lefties last season.
1B/OF Xavier Nady (R)
Went homerless in 110 plate appearances vs. righthanders last year.
INF Mark DeRosa (R)
He can play anywhere, but hasn't played much recently; only 73 games in the past two years, and one homer.
C Jesus Flores (R)
Might still be able to play every day after two years of injuries, but won't get the chance with Ramos on board.
INF Steve Lombardozzi (S)
Struggled in September call-up, but son of former major leaguer can draw walks and play middle infield.
RH Stephen Strasburg
The phenom returns; he'll pitch around 150 innings, but could strike out 150 batters in that time.
LH Gio Gonzalez
After winning 31 games the last two years in Oakland, he comes to the NL.
RH Jordan Zimmermann
Ranked 10th in NL with 3.18 ERA last year; won't have an innings limit after coming back from Tommy John.
RH Edwin Jackson
Cardinals won seven of his last 10 starts down the stretch last season as he went 4-1 with a 3.14 ERA.
LH John Lannan
Won 10 games for first time in 2011, had career-low 3.70 ERA. Not great stuff, but a solid No. 5 starter.
RH Drew Storen (Closer)
Saved 43 games in first full year as closer; has great stuff, and showed he could handle a big workload. A sore elbow will keep him out for a few weeks.
RH Tyler Clippard
Rode funky mechanics and rising fastball to stellar season and first All-Star Game.
RH Brad Lidge
Healthy for only 19.1 innings last season, he still averaged more than a strikeout per inning.
RH Henry Rodriguez
If he can control his fastball, he can be a good late-inning reliever.
LH Sean Burnett
Nationals' best reliever in 2010; came back strong at end of 2011 after struggling early.
RH Ryan Mattheus
In deep bullpen, could pitch in middle relief, but has potential for more.
RH Ryan Perry
Big fastball and questionable control. Came over in trade from Tigers; probably a mop-up man to start.
LH Tom Gorzelanny
Pitched well in long relief (2-0, 2.42 ERA in relief) after being bounced from rotation.
LH Ross Detwiler
The 2007 first-round draft pick is still a candidate for the rotation.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals