clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

NL East Preview: Washington Nationals

New, 17 comments

The Nationals hope 2013 was a speed bump on their road to championship. Was it?

Trades

The Nationals' big splash of the winter came on December 2, when they pulled off what is widely regarded as the steal of the offseason, acquiring Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers for a package of LHP Ian Krol, 2B Steve Lombardozzi, and LHP Robbie Ray. They also traded for lefty reliever Jerry Blevins from the Oakland A's.

Free Agent Signings

Nate McClouth was signed for outfield depth, and righty reliever Ross Ohlendorf signed a one-year deal. Virtually all of Washington's other signings were of the minor league variety.

Free Agent Departures

Dan Haren split for the Dodgers; otherwise, few of note.

Injuries

Fister has dealt with elbow inflammation this spring, but has begun throwing in minor league games and appears on schedule to start the season healthy. Reliever Ryan Mattheus is a little farther behind and only began throwing to hitters for the first time this week.

Projections

Given enough time, any youthful indiscretion can be forgiven, contingent on the nature of that indiscretion and the collateral damage caused thereby. So perhaps one day we'll all forget about the impetuousness of the Nationals' youth. By baseball's geological standards of age, they were a mere tadpole of a franchise in 2012 when Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg catapulted them into contention for the first time. Then, they tabled Strasburg before the playoffs because he'd hit his innings limit, or something. The move implied that they could not only win without Strasburg, but that they would surely be back in the postseason every year thereafter. Their manager, Davey Johnson, could have schooled them on the hubris of banking on a dynasty.

There were rational explanations for the struggles of 2013—Harper's injuries, Ryan Zimmerman's sudden decline, Denard Span falling off a cliff—but most observers preferred to blame the baseball gods who love to humble the prideful. After a curiously awful two-thirds of a season, the Nationals made a valiant effort at a wild card berth down the stretch, but it was too little, too late.

In the offseason, Washington pickpocketed the Tigers for Doug Fister, but otherwise eschewed the flashy "sorry, folks" moves that teams tend to make after a disappointing campaign. They concentrated instead on shoring up peripheral spots like middle relief (trading for Jerry Blevins from the A's, signing Ross Ohlendorf) and the bench (adding Nate McClouth). The Nationals assumed that 2013's finish was the reality and its beginning the illusion. That might not be 100 percent true, but it's probably true enough for them to rebound in 2014.

The addition of Fister to a rotation of Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann could give the Nationals the best starting pitching in the NL. The acquisitions of Blevins and Ohlendorf bolstered a tough middle relief corps that includes Craig Stammen, Tyler Clippard, and Drew Storen. Assuming he doesn't run into any walls, Harper will continue to amaze. Jayson Werth missed some time in 2013 and still had as quietly awesome year at the plate as it's possible to have. An entire season with a healthy Werth and a healthy Harper should do wonders for the Nationals' run-scoring prowess.

There are some concerns, of course. Closer Rafael Soriano has seen his velocity decline sharply and is at an age (34) where it won't be coming back; there's every chance he could lose his job to Storen or Clippard if he struggles. Denard Span had a terrible first season in DC, and it remains to be seen if he will rebound. More troubling is Ryan Zimmerman's decline in the field and at the plate; a possible move to first might help the former, but the latter has become a question mark.

Considering their pitching staff—and the woes besetting the Braves' pitching staff—none of these concerns may matter much. The Nationals should, at the very least, play in the postseason this year. There are no guarantees about what they do once they get there, a lesson they have surely learned by now. Then again, there's no getting through to some young'uns.