MLB In Full Bloom - Nationals Preview - 3/17/2014

Share

14– Number of days until Opening Day

80,663– Number of signatures at www.budweiser.com/openingday to make Opening Day a National Holiday

Washington Nationals Preview

Key Additions: Doug Fister, Jerry Blevins, Nate McLouth

Key Departures: Dan Haren, Steve Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy, Roger Bernadina

The Nationals were everybody’s pre-season darlings going into the 2013 season. In fact, I picked them to represent the National League in the World Series. They just never got it going, struggling to reach .500 deep into August. A late-season run in which they went 32-16 in the final 48 games gave fans a glimmer of hope that they could grab a Wild Card spot, but they ultimately fell short and missed the playoffs. One big reason why the Nationals struggled compared to 2012 was their production at second base. Danny Espinosa struggled, primarily due to a broken wrist and he eventually lost his job to Anthony Rendon.

OFFENSE: The Nationals essentially return the same lineup from last season, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Denard Span, the speedy outfielder who hit .279 with 20 steals, heads back to the leadoff spot in front of the impressive Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth trio. Those three guys combined for 71 home runs. Backed by Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, and Anthony Rendon there's plenty of potential for this lineup to be one of the highest-scoring units in baseball.

STARTING PITCHING: The starting rotation is the strength of the Nationals. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann have each had a year worthy of Cy Young consideration within the past two seasons while Stephen Strasburg was better than Gonzalez and Zimmermann in ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate last season. There are some that might point to his 8-9 record, but the Nationals scored two runs or fewer in 16 of Strasburg's 30 starts. Now, add in Doug Fister and the Nationals could have the best rotation in baseball. Fister was 32-20 with a 3.29 ERA with the Tigers. He's been one of the stingiest pitchers in the league in terms of home runs allowed and now he's switching over to the league that is easier on pitchers.

BULLPEN: Despite signing closer Rafael Soriano in 2013, the Nationals' bullpen was a league average unit last year. Soriano saw a huge drop in strikeout rate as his ERA climbed by nearly a full run. Despite the red flags, there are several reasons why he will keep his job in 2014. Setup man Tyler Clippard will continue to be amazing, but Drew Storen was awful in 2013 and it's difficult to know what he will do this year. Left Jerry Blevins was the latest pitcher in the Oakland-to-D.C. pipeline when the Nationals traded for him this offseason and will be a strength in the Nats pen.

2014 PREDICTION: If last year was World Series or bust, this season could be labeled as better late than never. Yes, the Nationals were predicted to win it all by many experts last season, but just because they failed doesn't mean they have lost their chance with this nucleus. This group is as talented as any and showed as much in the final third of the season in 2013. The most likely scenario is the Nationals engaging in a two-horse race with the Braves throughout the season in the NL East. I'm picking the Nationals to win that race.

Final Record (88-74 First Place in NL East)