Going into spring training in 2012, the Washington Nationals were thought to be a team of considerable talents, with an intriguing rookie (Bryce Harper), a stud pitcher recently removed from major surgery (Stephen Strasburg) and a war horse manager with a record of winning big while wearing out his welcome in the process (Davey Johnson). The team was predicted to do well, but no one expected a season in which the upstart Nats would forge the best record in major league baseball (98-64).
Entering the 2013 season, the Nationals are the favorites to repeat as National League East champions, and internally the team has set its sights even higher. “World Series or bust!” is the new rallying cry in D.C.
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest this team is top rank again, thanks to a few shrewd moves by general manager Mike Rizzo. From the core of shortstop Ian Desmond, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman Adam LaRoche and right fielder Jayson Werth to the aforementioned Harper and Strasburg, and on through the deep roster of talent, these Nationals seem to have been built to last awhile.
Nevertheless, there are a few questions to ask as the new season unfolds.
Will Harper continue to be the “boy wonder” of Washington?
There is little to suggest Harper (.270/.340/.477) will falter in 2013. While there has been much made of Harper’s 2012 season by members of the press, the youngster will be playing his age-20 season with the same amazing discipline and intensity.
Harper has been reluctant to state his personal goals, echoing his manager and other teammates with the “World Series or bust” mantra, but it’s fairly clear Harper’s going to turn up the gas and attempt to reach—or better—Mike Trout‘s amazing numbers from 2012.
Trout set new standards for rookies in the 21st century, and Harper’s remarkable season (at 19!) did look pale in contrast. However, a midseason slump (as pitchers adjusted to the rookie) was followed by a late-season return to form (as Harper adjusted to pitchers); Harper hit .330/.400/.643) in his last 31 games, with seven home runs.
Look for Harper to get better pitches to hit in the third spot in the lineup, which should increase his extra base hit totals. His speed, while raw, should become more refined as well, and playing left field should be less demanding on the youngster. Hitting behind newly-acquired Denard Span should also increase his ability to drive in runs.
It’s unlikely Harper will falter; failure doesn’t seem to be in this kid’s make-up. Aggressive like Pete Rose but with the youthful power of Hank Aaron (.280/.322/.447 in his first season), and with a love of playing the game like Ernie Banks, it would seem likely Harper will continue to shine in Washington.
Will Strasburg recover from his late-season “protection”?
Short answer—yes. The controversy surrounding the protection of Strasburg’s magnificent right arm will provide fodder for books a couple of decades hence, but give Rizzo and Johnson credit for announcing a plan early and sticking to it. So often in baseball, plans become modified due to press or fan pressure; this did not happen in D.C. and served notice that this pair of team leaders follow up on what they say they will do.
Who’s to know if their decision was the right one? Evidence can be presented for both sides—the young ace was showing signs of wear (in his final start, at least) works for the pro-Rizzo side; the team’s collapse against the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series suggests Strasburg could have turned the tide for the Nats (though the series was lost by the relievers in Game Five, not by the starters. It could be suggested if Strasburg had started Game Three instead of Edwin Jackson, that single game’s outcome could have been different).
It is important to note that, regardless of the kid glove handling of the youngster last season, Strasburg could still blow out his arm again in April 2013, or in June, or in September—or at any other time in his career. What cannot be argued is that Strasburg’s makeup suggests he’s ready to climb the Justin Verlander Trail, and become a dominant pitcher in the major leagues. His attitude in early camp seems to be outstanding, his stuff seems to be up to snuff, and he’s poised to become a great pitcher.
Johnson speaks of Dwight Gooden when he mentions Strasburg; Doc went from 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA as a thrower in 1984 (led the league as a 19-year-old in WHIP at 1.073) to a pitcher in 1985 (24-4 and a sick 1.53 ERA). Johnson believes this is attainable for his right-hander. Time will tell, of course, but I expect the only lingering effect of the “protection” will be to light an even larger fire under Strasburg to perform up to his potential.
How deep are the Nationals?
Very. As in “covered at nearly every position” deep.
Start at catcher, with Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos battling it out. The infield has LaRoche and young Tyler Moore on first (Michael Morse being exiled to Seattle for pitching depth), the trio of Desmond, second baseman Danny Espinosa and super-sub Steve Lombardozzi Jr. in the middle and Zimmerman.
The starting rotation (Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler) replaced free agent Jackson with a veteran presence, Dan Haren. And their strong bullpen (Game Five aside) was bolstered by an ace closer, Rafael Soriano, without significant subtraction.
The only position lacking quality replacement depth would be third base, which has to be considered a slight problem as Zimmerman still seems bothered by shoulder issues. There, Chad Tracy and Lombardozzi appear to be the only short-term options. However, there has been an ongoing consideration of moving the slugging Zimmerman to first base should youngster Anthony Rendon prove ready to hit major league pitching, and should LaRoche’s magic begin to wear off.
Rendon, in any event, appears to be close at either third or second (should Espinoza falter), and he will be only hours away at either Harrisburg or Syracuse. In fact, if Rendon’s 2013 start is particularly hot, look for the youngster to rise quickly.
On the pitching side, young Christian Garcia has been the talk of early camp. He’s caught Johnson’s eye with electrifying command and pitches the manager has noted as being as good, or better, than Strasburg’s offerings. Look for Garcia to begin at Syracuse and ready to step in should Gonzalez face a performance-enhancing drug related suspension, or if one of the others falters. Deep? Very.
Will Gio Gonzalez have to serve a suspension for PEDs?
A few weeks ago, when the news broke of the Miami scandal involving several major league ballplayers, it seemed certain the Cy Young-quality left-hander would have to sit part of the season in the stands. His name was prominently mentioned in the reports. Recently, however, it has been revealed Gonzalez, while linked as a purchaser of items from the Miami doctor at the heart of the inquiry, did not purchase banned substances.
Gonzalez has denied any involvement with banned substances as well. Should he be suspended, The Nationals—as smart as Rizzo and Johnson are— should have a plan to compensate for any time off for the lefty. Still, it is too soon to know for sure. Many pros think Gonzalez is telling the truth and there ultimately will be no suspension. Given the nature of the investigation, however, this question still has to be considered a toss-up.
Will Johnson retire after the 2013 season?
It depends on how high the team rises in 2013. Should the Nationals win the pennant and make the World Series, and certainly if they win it, it won’t be a stretch to assume Davey will move to the front office and let someone else take the reins in 2014. For Johnson, there’s always been this desire to see where the grass might be greener. After winning it all, his desire to take on new challenges will be immense. And at his age, the newest challenge might be to see what life offers off the baseball field. He’s been out of the game before, of course, but not truly on his own terms.
Should he retire, he would be going out on top, leaving nothing to prove, with a record of sustained excellence with a number of franchises. From the Mets to the Orioles to the Reds to the Nationals (best to leave out that time with the Dodgers) Johnson’s proven himself to be a winner. Taking a downtrodden franchise from losing to the pinnacle would be his crowning achievement and should be Hall of Fame worthy. Should the Nats fall short, however, Johnson’s the type of man who will not want to leave things undone—especially if it’s injury or chance that keeps the team from being on top come October. The answer to this question won’t be known until the next off-season—so this is a toss-up for now.
The Nationals seem primed to repeat in the NL East, though the Braves should hang tough with the Upton brothers. Span’s defensive skills will be a major bonus for the team, and having a closer, Soriano, whose monster season with the Yankees doesn’t need to be exactly replicated to be valuable, means the major additions to the team should have a positive effect.
The ensuing playoff series are hard to predict, but certainly “World Series or Bust” is a noble cry and may prove to be as enduring as “Ya Gotta Believe.” The pieces are in place, but the games must be played.