Phillies' NL East foes: Nationals got even better this winter

Phillies' NL East foes: Nationals got even better this winter

February 7, 2013, 11:00 am
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The Nationals won an MLB-best 98 games last season. (USA Today Images)

Our four-part series sizing up the Phillies’ NL East foes concludes today with the Washington Nationals.

Nobody thought the Nationals would get as good as they got as fast as they did.

But a Cy Young-type season from Gio Gonzalez (was it clean?), the continued development of Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, Bryce Harper’s quick ascent and, well, luck, played a role in the Nats winning 98 games and claiming a wide-open NL during the regular season.

Washington is now out to defend its NL East crown, which will be tougher in 2013 since the Phillies are healthier and the Braves have more upside.

Notable additions
CF Denard Span (via trade with Minnesota), closer Rafael Soriano, SP Dan Haren, SP Zach Duke, RP Bill Bray, 2B Will Rhymes, C Chris Snyder

Notable losses
1B Mike Morse (traded to Seattle), IF/OF Mark DeRosa, SP Edwin Jackson, SP John Lannan, SP Chien-Ming Wang, RP Sean Burnett, RP Tom Gorzelanny, RP Mike Gonzalez, C Jesus Flores

Offseason moves
The Nationals’ big move was trading 2011 first-round pitcher Alex Meyer to the Twins for centerfielder Denard Span, an underrated player in all phases of the game. Span is a career .284 hitter with a .357 on-base percentage who has averaged 18 stolen bases per season and plays a sound centerfield. He gives the Nats the true leadoff man they were missing last season.

Washington then spent much of the winter negotiating with first baseman Adam LaRoche, ultimately giving him a two-year, $24 million contract. It made Mike Morse obsolete, so the Nats traded him to the Mariners as part of a three-team deal, receiving high-upside starting pitcher A.J. Cole. In essence, the Nationals replaced the prospect they lost in the Span trade in the Morse deal. Shrewd moves by GM Mike Rizzo.

The Nats made an unsuccessful run at Mike Adams, finishing as the runner-up to the Phillies. They made up for it by inking closer Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal. That offset the loss of lefty specialist Sean Burnett, who fled to the Angels.

Finally, Rizzo signed Dan Haren – an injury risk but an effective starter when he’s healthy – to make up for the loss of Edwin Jackson to free agency. It was a busy winter in Washington and the Nats emerged better than they were when their postseason ended.

Offensive outlook
Span will instantly step into the leadoff role and should get on base plenty for Harper, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche. It’s a stacked middle of the order, especially if LaRoche can replicate his career year of 2012, in which he hit 33 homers and drove in exactly 100 runs for the second time in three years.

Washington’s projected lineup is:

Span (L)
Harper (L)
Zimmerman (R)
LaRoche (L)
Werth (R)
Ian Desmond (R)
Danny Espinosa (S)
Kurt Suzuki (R)

A pretty complete lineup – three lefties, four righties and a switch-hitter. Speed with Span, Harper, Werth and Desmond. Power in every lineup spot from 2-7. Good defense at each outfield spot, a soft-handed first baseman and a solid defensive catcher. Espinosa and Desmond can be shaky up the middle, however.

In all, this is one of the best, most versatile batting orders in the NL. If Desmond and Espinosa hit, it can be the best.

Pitching outlook
This Nationals' starting staff is second in the NL only to the Phillies'; at least that’s what the numbers say (see story).

Gonzalez may not be as good as he was in 2012, when he received 6.68 runs of support per game, second-most in the NL.

Strasburg will likely build upon his stellar season (15-6, 3.16 ERA, 11.1 K/9, 2.7 BB/9) and you can bet he won’t be shut down again in 2013. This will be the year Strasburg turns into a legitimate top-three NL Cy Young candidate; those peripheral numbers are just absurd.

Zimmermann was a quality start machine last season and there is no reason to believe he’ll regress from the 3.05 ERA and 1.16 ERA he’s put up the past two years.

Haren – 113-87 with a 3.58 ERA since 2005 – is as steady as they come, but there are questions about his hip and back. If there weren’t, the Angels wouldn’t have declined his option. If he returns to form, the Nats’ rotation could easily overtake the Phillies’ simply because of the depth at the back-end.

Rounding out the rotation is Ross Detwiler, a lefty who had a 3.40 ERA last season in 33 appearances (27 starts).

It is important to note that the Nationals benefited from incredible health from their hurlers last season. Gonzalez and Zimmermann each made 32 starts. Jackson made 31. Strasburg made 28, only because he was shut down. Detwiler made 27.

Starting staffs don’t often stay that healthy two years in a row.

Bullpen
Out is Burnett, in is Soriano. While Soriano is more well-known, keeping Burnett would have been the better move. From 2010-12 Burnett had a 2.76 ERA and held lefties to a .229 average and .616 OPS.

Now, the Nats lack a go-to lefty. Bill Bray was brought in, probably because of his success against Ryan Howard (0-for-11, five strikeouts).

Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen still form a devastating late relief crew. Clippard had 32 saves and 12 more strikeouts than innings pitched last year, and now moves back to a setup role.

Fireballer Henry Rodriguez and long men Zach Duke and Craig Stammen will likely complete the ‘pen.

Season outlook
Barring injuries to the rotation or to a key starting position player, the Nats should win 95 or more games again in 2013. Washington doesn’t have much on the bench if a player like LaRoche or Zimmerman does go down, however. Chad Tracy or Tyler Moore would be next in line. 

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