COMMENTARY | As the Washington Nationals near the decade mark in their brief existence, expectations couldn't be any higher. After their signature moment -- winning the National League (NL) East in 2012, the Nationals followed with a disappointing second-place 2013 finish in the division and missed the playoffs.
The Nats figure to be a championship contender in 2014, however, for many reasons.
1) Pitcher perfect
Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg has come a long way since his 2010 Tommy John surgery. After a brilliant 2012 season that saw the 25-year-old record a 3.16 ERA and a career-high 197 strikeouts, Strasburg picked up in 2013 where he left off -- fanning 191 batters and boasting an opponent batting average of just .207.
2) Fear the beard
When right fielder Jayson Werth arrived in Washington via free agency in 2010, he was practically given the key to the city. His $126 million contract made him the 14th-highest paid player in baseball. His play did not reflect his worth early on.
Following a dismal 2011 in which he batted .232, a career-low as a full-time starter, Werth broke his wrist in 2012, sidelining him for three months. Just when you thought he was down and out, the former Phillies right fielder enjoyed the best season of his career in 2013 -- batting a career-high .318 and driving in 82 runs. The city of Washington looks for Werth to continue his offensive prowess in 2014.
3) Stout defense
The 2013 Washington Nationals were highlighted by excellent pitching and superior defense. Despite his mediocrity at the plate, first baseman Adam LaRoche is a picking machine. Sporting a career fielding percentage of .995, LaRoche won his first Gold Glove with the Nats in 2012 and strives to continue his effectiveness in year three.
Also to be noted is the superior fielding ability of shortstop Ian Desmond and center fielder Denard Span -- both Gold Glove finalists in 2013. A respected defensive group will maintain their reputation in 2014, as most of the vital pieces are still in place.
The Nationals return all eight position players as well as four of five starting pitchers in 2014. The continued longevity of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, entering year nine as a full-time starter, will produce a steady dose of leadership to the once young players who continue to get older. As left fielder Bryce Harper enters his third year, the glamour of his 2012 NL Rookie of the Year Award and status as a first overall pick are starting to wear off. The young kid who once experienced so much pressure can now settle in and play ball, looking to improve on his impressive numbers from 2013.
5) New management
We all loved Davey Johnson, but, let's face it, the man is getting old. He doesn't have the superior intellect, influence or motivational skills he once had as a younger man. Though he was a beloved manager for what he did for this city by players and fans alike, it was time for him to go.
Now, 47 year-old Matt Williams looks to fill Davey's large, but welcoming shoes.Will Grooms is a student sportswriter for the Collegiate Times in Blacksburg, VA. Follow him on Twitter @W_Grooms94.
- Sports & Recreation
- Washington Nationals
- Jayson Werth
- Stephen Strasburg