COMMENTARY | Much has changed for Washington Nationals fans in recent years.
Not long ago, they suffered through consecutive 100-loss seasons and were a national joke due to their poor record and public embarrassments like misspelling "Nationals" on the front of the uniform. Fast forward to today, and the Nationals are coming off a NL East championship and the best record in baseball and look poised to build on last season's success in 2013.
Aside from the confidence of knowing the team has a real chance to win the World Series this season, there are many reasons why this is a great time to be a Nationals fan.
10) A Healthy Ryan Zimmerman
Cortisone shots helped relieve some of the pain, but Zimmerman struggled with a shoulder injury all last season and still posted an impressive .282/.346/.478 with 25 home runs. His injury, though, was more apparent on defense, relegating him to an awkward throwing motion and more errors than normal for this defensive standout. After an offseason to recover and now batting cleanup behind strong on-base guys Denard Span and Jayson Werth, Zimmerman, the face of the franchise, is primed to post a career season in 2013.
9) An Improving Farm System
The trades for Gio Gonzalez and Span and recent graduations like Bryce Harper have depleted some talent from the minor-league system. In addition, last season was also a tough year because of injuries to Matt Purke and Sammy Solis, and disappointing seasons from Destin Hood and Michael Taylor helped take some luster from a highly ranked farm system.
But with Anthony Rendon poised to bolster the roster later this season, the return to health of those players mentioned and 2012 first-round pick Lucas Giolito, and breakout seasons from a few prospects, the Nationals' farm system should look more impressive this time next year than it does today.
8) Opening Day
Opening day should be a national holiday, in my humble opinion, and this year should be truly excellent as the Nationals are playing at home against the Marlins, Stephen Strasburg is on the mound, and the team will raise their 2012 National League East championship flag. Sounds like a perfect day to play hooky and go to the ballpark.
7) Potential To Have Four 20-Game Winners
The Nationals' starting rotation had the second-best ERA in baseball last season at 3.40. Without any innings restrictions to Strasburg, the continued development of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Ross Detwiler, and upgrading from Edwin Jackson to Dan Haren, the team has a potentially dominant starting staff.
Four 20-win starting pitchers on the same team has not happened since 1971, so history tells us this will not happen. But with a little luck and good health, the Nationals could change the answer to the baseball trivia question, "Who were the pitchers on the last staff to have four 20-game winners?" (1971 Baltimore Orioles, Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar, and Dave McNally)
6) A Solution in Center Field
General manager Mike Rizzo made a gutsy decision early this offseason to trade prospect Alex Meyer to Minnesota to acquire Span to solve the revolving door the team has had in center field since coming to Washington in 2005. The Nationals have used more than 30 different players in center field since arriving in Washington, but, finally, the team has their man in Span, a true leadoff hitter with a career .357 on-base percentage and impressive defensive skills. His acquisition should ignite the top of the Nationals' offense and give Harper and Zimmerman plenty of RBI opportunities this season.
5) Jayson Werth Proves His Worth
After a difficult first season in Washington followed by an injury-filled season in 2012, many around baseball have forgotten Werth posted a .300/.387/.440 batting line last year and slugged 46 doubles in 2010 and 36 home runs in 2009. Assuming his left wrist has fully recovered and with the motivation to lead this young roster back to the playoffs, do not be surprised if Werth has an excellent rebound season batting in the second spot in the lineup in front of kid brother Harper.
4) Anthony Rendon's Debut
It may not earn a nickname like "Strasmus", or national attention like Harper last April, but after performing so well in spring training, Nationals fans are eagerly anticipating Rendon's debut at some point this season. Unless an injury to an infielder forces his promotion, I predict Rendon's sweet right-handed swing will eventually force his way to Washington on July 19, the first of an 11-game homestand and a date that should safely delay his arbitration clock another year.
3) A Full Season of Stephen Strasburg
Strasburg might have the best pure stuff in baseball with three above-average to plus pitches and if he remains healthy for a full season, he has an excellent chance of leading the Nationals to the playoffs and receiving numerous Cy Young votes. With a chance to throw a no-hitter each time he takes the mound, Nationals fans should be excited and thankful he is on their side the next four seasons.
2) The Emergence of Danny Espinosa
After a poor April (.205/.300/.269) contributed to an underwhelming first half (.232/.309/.374) and a down sophomore season overall at .247/.315/.402, Espinosa enters 2013 with a healthy left shoulder and a shorter left-handed swing. These improvements should allow Danny to cut down on his strikeouts, which at 189 last year was excessive and dragged down his overall numbers. His hard work coupled with the experience of 1,400 major-league at-bats gives me the confidence Espinosa will exceed his numbers from the second half of last year (.264/.321/.432) with 20+ home runs in 2013.
1) Bryce Harper
Like an adolescent girl at a Justin Bieber concert, I am absolutely giddy at the thought of watching the next six years of Bryce Harper's career in Washington, as his unique combination of skills and insatiable desire to be a superstar gives him almost unlimited potential on a baseball diamond. I am comfortably predicting a .275 batting average with 30+ home runs, a Gold Glove for his defense in left field, and a few votes for National League MVP.
Not bad for a 20-year-old.
Ryan Sullivan is Editor-in-Chief of NatsGM.com, a critical analysis website analyzing the Washington Nationals and topics around baseball. He also does a weekly Podcast and contributes to RedPorchReport.com. You can email Ryan at NationalsGM@gmail.com and Follow him on Twitter @NatsGMdotcom.