The 2014 season is the start of a new era for the Washington Nationals now that Davey Johnson has been guided upstairs and replaced by Matt Williams. Williams already has acknowledged that he’s fortunate to be given such a strong squad in his first managerial assignment, rather than the rebuilding projects most receive.
Last season should have been the year we had been waiting for since relocation, but it wasn’t to be. If anything, though, the acquisition of Doug Fister (to replace Dan Haren in the rotation), Jerry Blevin (in the bullpen) and Nate McLouth has added depth and experience to improve the roster. These acquisitions, coupled with early reports out of Viera of players warming quickly to the new approach Williams is bringing to the club, makes the Nationals once again legitimate contenders for a World Series run.
The Nats have the luxury of putting out the exact same lineup for opening day as the one that played in the last game of 2013, with the addition of a couple of bats on the bench. Everyone knows Denard Span is a solid lead-off speedster, though he’ll want to draw more walks and bump up his .327 OBP from last year, but he’s also a good center fielder, where he didn’t commit a single error last year. Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper add explosive power and ability to get on base at the top of the order, which is why they should be in the next two slots. Ian Desmond has been underrated, but showed last season just what he can do swinging a bat for power, with 20 homers and 38 doubles. And while we would expect some regression with those numbers, he should look to improve his average from .280 — though as an All-Star shortstop, he’s worth his place in the line-up with those numbers almost for his glove alone. Adam LaRoche and Anthony Rendon have plenty to prove after subpar offensive numbers last year, though Rendon made a solid start in the field and should keep Danny Espinosa out of that spot for opening day.
Fielding is one area the Nats need to improve. They committed 107 errors, and Ryan Zimmerman especially struggled getting the ball across the diamond at times. Early signs this spring are that there is still much defensive work to do, especially after five errors in Saturday’s crazy 16-15 win against the Braves.
The Washington pitching rotation never really got going last year, despite the best efforts of Jordan Zimmermann, the only starter to pitch more than 200 innings. Stephen Strasburg didn’t really bounce back from the disappointment of being shut down at the back of the 2012 season, while Gio Gonzalez managed to look awesome and awful almost simultaneously. Ross Detwiler wasn’t healthy enough of the time to make an impact, and Haren looked like he was throwing BP most outings.
The addition of Fister solidifies the number-four slot. And if Strasburg can find his groove and go deep into games, while Gonzalez keeps his command and Detwiler stays healthy, then Zimmermann should find himself without such a heavy load to carry, and the bats might be able to win games without having to score too many runs.
Opening day lineup
1. Denard Span, CF
2. Jason Werth, RF
3. Bryce Harper, LF
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
5. Ian Desmond, SS
6. Adam LaRoche, 1B
7. Anthony Rendon, 2B
8. Wilson Ramos, C
The Nats are in the fortunate position of watching their first overall picks come to the big league club in the past couple of seasons, and with Rendon joining Harper and Strasburg, the farm system is not as exciting as it was 18 months ago. That’s not to say there aren’t prospects who won’t make the jump to Nationals Park later in the year. Matt Skole has already looked good when he’s been given the chance to wear the Curly W; expect him to be ready to fill any hole at first left by either Zimmerman or LaRoche.
On the mound, Lucas Giolito is the one to watch; though we won’t see him for a few years. His fastball and curveball improved again last year, and if they continue to do so, he should rise through the farm system and even play some triple-A ball later in the year. A.J Cole is another top arm the Nats hope reaches his potential. He had a good 2012, splitting his time between High-A Potomac and double-A Harrisburg. Cole made his spring training debut in 2014 against the Mets, striking out two and giving up three hits over two innings. Over the next few weeks in Florida, Nats fans hope to see some more prospects get time on the diamond before they spread out to affiliates.
Most of last year’s Nationals predictions went out of the window when Espinosa forgot how to play and Harper ran into a wall. There is surely no way that such bad luck could hit the same team in consecutive years, which means 2014 could be the year 2013 should have been. Specifically, I’m calling the Nats to win 93 games, which will be good enough for the NL East, and they should have a good chance of winning the pennant this year.
Player wise, after the speculation last year and the reports coming out of the first week of camp, it’s clear that Zimmerman will make the move to first base sometime this year, perhaps to play 25-30 games there. That will allow Rendon to make the switch to his preferred position at the hot corner, which may allow Espinosa a chance to get back to the big league team. Also expect Harper to deliver the kind of season he’s been promising. I’ll take him to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bags as a bare minimum for the year.
Everyone thought the 2013 Nats were the team to beat, but a combination of a slow start, injuries and poor pitching stopped them from fulfilling their undoubted potential. With an improved rotation, bullpen and offensive depth, only injuries can stop the Nationals from winning the National League East this year. And if everyone stays healthy, we’ll be watching baseball in the District for a good part of October, too.