Washington Nationals Preview: Top 5 Pitching Questions

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COMMENTARY | The Washington Nationals had a magical run through the 2012 season, and the cause isn't difficult to pinpoint. The Nats relied heavily on a young pitching staff that arrived to prominence ahead of schedule -- leading the National League with a 3.33 ERA on the season.

If the team plans to repeat its NL East division championship -- and maybe go further -- the Nats will need more of the same from their arms. With all of the big names returning, plus the additions of Rafael Soriano and Dan Haren, there's no shortage of optimism in spring training.

Here are the top questions facing the Nats pitching staff as the 2013 season approaches:

Can Strasburg and Gonzalez ignore distractions?

It was baseball's top one-two punch last season, and Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez should only get better. The pair combined for 36 wins and 404 Ks in 2012. And lest we forget, Strasburg didn't even pitch a full season -- something Nationals fans certainly haven't forgotten.

Strasburg was understandably unhappy with the team's controversial choice to shut him down early -- an arbitrary decision that will spur debate for a generation. Meanwhile, the happy-go-lucky Gonzalez, who finished third in the Cy Young race, was surprisingly named in offseason reports linking him with performance-enhancing drugs -- a charge that's nearly, but not quite, been dismissed.

There's every reason to believe that Strasburg can put his disappointment behind him and dominate for a full 200 innings, and that Gonzalez can emerge from the cloud surrounding him and get back to business. But the two young aces have some unfamiliar, emotional hurdles to overcome.

Does Jordan Zimmermann have a change-up?

Overlooked among the hype surrounding the top of the rotation, the Nats may have also had the best #3. Jordan Zimmermann quietly posted ace-like numbers, highlighted by a sub-3.00 ERA that was the 10th-best in all of baseball. He might have achieved more celebrity if not for an unassuming demeanor, along with his meager, hard-luck total of 12 wins.

A repeat performance by Zimmermann could very well be a key to the Nats' hopes in 2013. And if he's even better? Zimmermann is working on a change-up -- a pitch that could launch him into the conversation about the best pitchers in baseball, or a pitch that could be quickly shelved and forgotten if the experiment doesn't pan out.

Take spring training numbers with a big grain of salt, but Zimmermann tried out his change-up in a March 18 Grapefruit League game against Detroit -- after surrendering a lead-off single, he retired the next 18 Tigers.

Which Dan Haren will show up in 2013?

It doesn't feel like much of gamble to bring in this new #5 starter. The back-end of the rotation will transition from veteran Edwin Jackson -- who had a serviceable one-year stop with the Nats -- to veteran Dan Haren. This will be Haren's fifth team as he enters his 11th major league season, and as always, there's plenty of upside to dream about.

If Haren reverts to his 2011 form (16-10, 3.17 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 192 Ks), the Nats' rotation may go down in history as one of the best. If he has a repeat of his 2012 (12-13, 4.33 ERA, 1.29 WHIP), it might not be a big drop-off from Jackson, but there will be some disappointment.

Will Rafael Soriano be worth the investment?

Sure, it's nice to have a lock-down closer if your goals include division championships and playoff victories. And in the offseason, the Nationals opened eyes around baseball by signing Rafael Soriano. Filling in last year for the injured Mariano Rivera, Soriano excelled for the New York Yankees -- 42 saves and a 2.26 ERA. He had already proven he was a top-flight closer with a spectacular 2010 season with the Tampa Bay Rays.

But there are big question marks surrounding this move. The Nats already have Drew Storen -- one of the best young closers in the game -- and Tyler Clippard, who was nearly perfect when filling in for an injured Storen. So do the Nats need a third closer? Probably not, but you can never have too many arms in the bullpen.

But was $14 million a year the right price to pay for Soriano? That money could surely have been spent better in other ways. Soriano will need to be near-perfect to justify the hefty investment.

How will Drew Storen adjust to his new role?

Storen would seem to be everything a team could ask for in a young closer, and his track record through parts of three seasons has been impressive. His 2012 got a very late start due to elbow surgery, but he looked sharp upon his return -- 4-for-5 in save situations, and a 0.99 WHIP over 37 games.

His final memories of 2012, however, are disastrous. Storen blew a save when it mattered most, entering the ninth inning of the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS with a two-run lead, and surrendering four runs to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Storen already had to find a way to exorcise those demons, and now his team unexpectedly signs a new closer and banishes Storen to become the set-up man. Whether or not it was the right move, the Nats' bullpen could be fearsome if Storen embraces his new role.

KW Rosenfeld is an award-winning writer who visited every major league ballpark in the summer of 1991. A longtime resident of Northern Virginia, he's still thankful that baseball has returned to D.C.

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