The Washington Nationals were thought to still be a year away from contention at the beginning of the 2012 season, but now they enter the upcoming 2013 season as early World Series favorites.
92.6%: The starting rotation for the Nationals saw just eight different pitchers start a game for the team -- 150 of the 162 games started were handled by just five starters, meaning they pitched nearly 93% of all the team's games. While the odds of being able to pull something like that off again are stacked against them, as Marc Normandin noted, they do have a shot with four of those five starters returning and Dan Haren taking the place of Edwin Jackson.
Even if they are unable to repeat that level of consistency and health, they still probably have one of the five strongest rotations in all of baseball. If Stephen Strasburg is not limited in any way this upcoming season, they could wind up as the best rotation in baseball.
50: This is the number of games that starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez could potentially be suspended if MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has his way and is able to come down hard on those major league players linked to the BioGenesis clinic for banned substances. That would surely hurt the vaunted rotation mentioned above.
2012 Season in Review: The Nationals were thought to be close to competing in 2012, but were viewed by many as a team that was still at least a year away. The Nats won 98 games, the most in baseball, on their way to their first National League East title since the strike-shortened 1994 season as the Montreal Expos (they went 74-40). Even though the team lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in a very dramatic NLDS matchup, there were still a lot of bright spots to their season.
NL Rookie of the Year and first time All-Star Bryce Harper established himself as a legitimate threat in the lineup and his hustle and old school mentality has rubbed off on his teammates in a good way. They had the best starting rotation in the National League, even after the controversial decision to shut Strasburg down, and several young players took huge leaps forward in their development such as Gio Gonzalez and Ian Desmond -- two players the team will rely on heavily in 2013.
Key Offseason Moves:
Signed Rafael Soriano for two years and $28M: The team that had the third-best bullpen in the NL last season, sure didn’t act like it when they signed Soriano to his sizeable new contract. Then again, the team didn't have too many legitimate holes to fill anyway. Even though the Nationals didn’t need Soriano, they decided to get him anyway and now their bullpen looks that much stronger. Consider that the team did blow 17 saves last season, and it makes more sense, even though that number was good for 12th best in baseball.
Acquired CF Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins: The Nationals lacked a legitimate center fielder in 2012 but the addition of Span has changed that for the next two years at least. The team was able to get Span from the Twins for starting pitching prospect Alex Meyer, who was the 23rd overall pick in the 2011 draft and ranked 88th overall in Jason Parks's Top 101 Prospects list for Baseball Prospectus this year.
Span has a career .284/.357/.389 batting line and is under contract for $4.75 million in 2013 and $6.5 million in 2014, with a club option in 2015 for $9 million. That's not a bad deal for someone that will provide them with above-average defense in center field and speed on the bases. This move will also help keep Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth in the corner outfield spots.
Depth Chart: The overall depth this team has is better than most, but there are certain positions where the lack of depth is alarming. Depth at catcher, all over the infield, and the bullpen are phenomenal. The depth in the outfield isn’t horrible, but it could be better as a serious injury to any one of their regulars (Harper, Werth, or Span) could spell trouble as their best back-up option is Roger Bernadina at this point.
The biggest issue in regards to depth is in the starting rotation, as any injury could mean serious trouble for the club. Their best backup option, Christian Garcia, is not recovering well from an injury and is likely to begin the season in extended spring training or on the disabled list. Zach Duke, who is likely to serve as a bullpen arm if he makes the team, could fill in but they would get nowhere near the production that one of their regular starters could provide.
Needless to say, Duke -- or veteran Chris Young -- is their best fallback option at this point if an injury does occur, as most of the other arms in the system are still a full season or two away at best. This is something definitely worth keeping an eye on as the regular season progresses.
Check out Washington’s 2013 depth chart at MLB Depth Charts.
2013 Outlook: How is it that a team that won 98 games in 2012 can look even better the following season? GM Mike Rizzo has made it a point to acquire the few pieces (see Span, Denard and Soriano, Rafael) that could push them over the top. Other than their lack of rotation depth outside of their starting five, I don’t see any glaring holes or weaknesses.
They haven’t punted on offense in any spot in the lineup, their bullpen looks to be even better than last year, and Stephen Strasburg looks like he won’t be limited this season. There is the BioGenesis cloud hanging over Gio Gonzalez though, and it does appear that MLB is going to make it a point to come down hard on the players linked to that report but punishment could be difficult with the MLB Players Union protecting him.
Bold Prediction: Can the Washington Nationals make history this season? I happen to think they can as long as they don’t suffer any devastating injuries in the rotation. 105 or more wins is not out of reach for this team, and I could see them winning 105 and representing the National League in the World Series.