After a week of playing in the frozen tundra of Minnesota and Denver, the Mets head back home to New York where they'll face their biggest challenge yet: the Washington Nationals. Last year's NL East champions sit in second place in the division behind the Braves with a 9-6 record and should see themselves competing with Atlanta for the top spot all season. To help give us a preview of this weekend's series, Jared Book of SB Nation's Federal Baseball kindly answered a few questions about the Nats.
Amazin' Avenue: What are your expectations for the Nationals and what has to happen for this team to repeat as Division Champs this season?
Federal Baseball: I think anything less than an NLCS appearance will be a disappointment for the Nationals this season. They are an improved team over last year, and I think not showing that growth in tangible playoff success would hurt. The main things for them to repeat as division champs would be health in the pitching staff and especially the starting rotation. They also need Dan Haren to be better than he has been. Last year, they were extremely healthy in the rotation, with only shutting down Stephen Strasburg the reason that they had eight men start games. Otherwise, the number would have been six or seven. Their offense has enough contingency plans that they can overcome injuries or underperformance. Their rotation cannot. That is the key.
AA: The Braves are off to an impressive start thus far and even swept the Nats last weekend. These two teams look like the class of the division. How do you think the two teams stack up and which one is better?
FB: The two teams are pretty similar, actually. They have very good offenses, they have very good bullpens but I would give Atlanta the advantage, especially so far this season. The rotations is where the Nationals have the advantage on paper but Atlanta's rotation has been so, so good so far this season. Over the long run, I think the teams will be a lot more even. The Braves will start losing and the Nationals will go on a run. I will be surprised if the difference between the NLDS and Wild Card game is bigger than three games.
AA: Dan Haren has gotten lit up in his three starts, including getting shellacked by the woeful Marlins in his last outing. What's up with Haren and do you think he can snap out of this funk?
FB: Location. Surprisingly, his velocity is up from last year which is encouraging but he is leaving balls in hittable places. Every pitcher deals with struggles and because it's all we have to look at with Haren, it's even harder for Nationals fans. I think he will be able to bounce back and if it was velocity, I would think it would be hard to bounce back but because it's sharpness that seems like the issue I think in time it will be fine.
AA: Bryce Harper is so good but I don't think people (Mets fans, specifically) appreciate just how good Harper is and how outstanding he was last year at 19 years old. How good is Bryce Harper right now and how good do you think he can be in the future?
FB: Oh, man. Bryce Harper is so different from any player I've ever seen. He is so competitive. He plays with so much passion. And he's so talented. It's like you put a huge fan into the game but give him superstar talent. How can that possibly go wrong? I think Mike Trout is the best and worst thing to happen to Harper. It made Harper underappreciated but it also gave him an almost impossible ideal to live up to. I think he has all the tools to be the best player in franchise - even going back to the Expos - history. Better than Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero and Ryan Zimmerman. You have at least two hall of famers on that list, so you have an idea of what he can be.
AA: Three of the Nats' infielders (Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, and Danny Espinosa) have gotten off to slow starts thus far. Any worry about them or is this just a small sample blip? Also, what is the ETA on top prospect Anthony Rendon and where on the infield does he play when/if he's ready this year?
FB: I think it is just a blip to be honest, at least with Zimmerman and LaRoche. I don't expect LaRoche to have the season he had last year, but he will be better than he has been, and has been better after an 0-15 start. Espinosa is playing with an injury and just got another injury the last few days, so that is definitely an issue. I think he is the weak guy in that lineup and the one who is most likely to lose his job.
I am higher on Rendon than most. I see him coming up in the summer. He had a great spring and just needs to stay healthy. Barring injury and/or struggles, I can see Rendon in any spot from every day second baseman to utility infielder to inter-league designated hitter where he spells the regulars and starts 2-4 times a week. I would say as long as Rendon stays healthy and performs in the minors, he can be up as early as July, get acclimated to Major League pitching and become a big contributor off the bench in the postseason like Tyler Moore was last season.
Thanks again to Jared Book for giving us a preview of the Nationals! Here are the pitching matchups for this series: