COMMENTARY | "World Series or bust" was how manager Davey Johnson described the upcoming Nationals season, and with good reason, as the team led the major leagues with 98 total wins en route to winning National League East in 2012.
Then, this offseason, general manager Mike Rizzo set out to bolster the roster, trading for center fielder Denard Span, re-signing Adam LaRoche, and signing free-agent pitchers Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano in hopes of creating a more complete team prepared to win a championship. Last season's success combined with these wise acquisitions have made the Nationals one of the favorites to win the World Series this year.
Unfortunately, as many of us know, favorites do not always win for a variety of reasons. As with any general manager worth his salt, I have tried to cast a critical eye on the Nationals organization and look for what potential flaws the roster has that might keep them from a sustained playoff run this year.
As we rapidly approach opening day, here are my three biggest question marks surrounding the Nationals this season:
1) Starting Pitching
Amongst the Nationals' good fortune last season was the health of their starting rotation, as their top five starters (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler) accounted for 150 total starts in 2012. Even this impressive number is a bit misleading, as John Lannan made six starts last season in part due to Strasburg's inning shutdown, and Chien-Ming Wang made five starts as an audition to be the team's fifth starter over Detwiler. Even though the rotation avoided injuries, the Nationals front office wisely had capable replacements like Lannan, Tom Gorzelanny, and Wang as depth.
The Nationals' 2013 rotation on paper looks superior to last year's version, as their young starters should benefit from another season of maturation, and Dan Haren appears to be an upgrade from Jackson. However, each pitcher enters the season with some concern, as Strasburg and Zimmermann have undergone past Tommy John surgery, Haren suffered from back troubles last year, Detwiler has never shown the type of consistency he did in 2012, and Gonzalez was linked to performance-enhancing drugs during the offseason.
While none are high-risk, chances are not great the team will have the same luck with their health again in 2013. Currently, the Nationals have Zach Duke, Yunesky Maya, and minor-league free-agent Chris Young as depth for their starters, a notable downgrade from last season. If they remain healthy, the Nationals rotation stands an excellent chance to surpass their impressive 3.40 cumulative ERA in 2012, but if injuries arise, their chances of returning to the playoffs would drastically suffer.
2) A Bryce Harper Sophomore Slump
Bryce Harper was simply spectacular for the Nationals last season, arriving with massive hype and producing an excellent rookie season with a .270/.340/.477 batting line and 22 home runs and 18 stolen bases. However, as we have seen in recent years with Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, it is often difficult for a young player to improve on an excellent rookie year, as pitchers around the league learn and exploit weaknesses as a hitter.
This year, the Nationals are dropping Harper into the third spot in the batting order and asking him to shift defensive positions to left field, a difficult task for any player, especially a 20-year-old. While most pundits are expecting Bryce to improve, perhaps significantly, from last season, if Harper struggles this season under the pressure of increased expectations, the Nationals lineup could struggle to score runs and will suffer dramatically.
3) An Improved National League East
The Nationals are not the only team in the NL East that improved this winter. Atlanta signed free-agent center fielder B.J. Upton and acquired Justin Upton and Jordan Walden in separate trades this offseason to bolster their roster. Philadelphia traded for outfielder Ben Revere and third baseman Michael Young, and expects healthier seasons from Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, and Chase Utley to help return them to the playoffs this fall. The Mets are still reloading, but after re-signing David Wright this offseason and the continued maturation of pitching prospects Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler, there are reasons for optimism in New York these days.
The Marlins will struggle in their first full season in rebuilding mode, though they seem to relish being a thorn in the Nationals' side over the years. Not to mention, any team with superstar outfielder Giancarlo Stanton and talented young pitchers like Henderson Alvarez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Jacob Turner have the potential to play spoiler if teams overlook them during the season.
The Nationals went 42-30 against the NL East in 2012 and considering the improvements to their division foes, they might struggle to match this success again this season.
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. Follow him on Twitter @NatsGMdotcom.
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