The Washington Nationals took some huge strides last season and are no longer a team in transition. 3B Ryan Zimmerman, fresh off his 6 year, $100 million extension, is expected to be healthy and provide a presense in the lineup. Gio Gonzalez comes over from Oakland, giving them six solid starting pitchers. Stephen Strasburg is expected to contribute all season. Their major wild card is going to be 19 year old Bryce Harper, who has a very good chance of making the opening day roster. This is a team that has all the components needed for a winner as it wouldn't be surprising if they were in the race all season.
Manager Davey Johnson is in favor of Harper starting the season on the team. He was the one that got a teenage Dwight Gooden into the majors in 1984 and produced positive results. Ian Desmond (.253, 8, 49) should improve as the team's leadoff hitter and shortstop. Assuming Harper bats 2nd, Zimmerman (.289, 12, 49 in just 101 games) should be the best offensive player on this team. He should revert back to the form of 2009 and 2010, where he hit .292, 33, 106 and .307, 25, 85, respectively. Michael Morse, (.303, 31, 95) had an anticipated breakout season and along with emerging star catcher Wilson Ramos (.267, 15, 52) will provide the necessary protection for Harper and Zimmerman. This should also take some of the pressure off of Jayson Werth, who may be the regular centerfielder. Werth signed the 7 year contract for $18 million a season and had a disappointing 2011 season (.232, 20, 58). Werth could thrive as a complementary player which is what he was in Philadelphia. Adam LaRoche is coming off a serious injury and is expected to help out by playing steller defense at 1B. It is easy to forget, LaRoche hit 25 HR each season from 2008-2010. Danny Espinosa (.236, 21, 66) has taken over as the everyday 2B.
The offense should be able to score runs but there are a lot of players with low on base percentages and high strikeout totals in the lineup. A healthy Zimmerman and Harper playing everyday could help in that regard. I like the fact that everybody in that lineup can hit the long ball, they should score more runs this year than in 2011.
The pitching staff is deep, but unpredictable. Gonzalez was acquired from Oakland to be the ace of this staff. He also signed a lengthy extension to stay in Washington. He was 16-12, 3.12 on a bad Oakland team and may pitch better in the National League. Strasburg is looking to make an impact in his first full season, and he should be fine coming off Tommy John surgery. They also signed Edwin Jackson (12-9, 3.79 with the White Sox and Cardinals). Jordan Zimmermann (8-11, 3.16) is finally ready to let it fly this season with no innings restrictions and John Lannan (10-13, 3.70) will provide innings and depth. Chien-Ming Wang is about fully recovered from his torn capsule operation and should be expected to pitch the full season. That leaves the Nationals with 6 starting pitchers, something that usually balances itself out.
I like their bullpen. Drew Storen (6-3, 2.75, 43 saves) is coming into his own and is only 23. Tyler Clippard (3-0, 1.83, 104 K in 88 1/3 IP) is one of the best middle relievers in the game. Sean Burnett (5-5, 3.81 in 69 games) is better than your average lefty reliever, as he can pitch full innings and get right hand hitters out. Henry Rodriguez (3-3, 3.56 in 59 games) could be on the verge of a big season. Don't forget, they added Brad Lidge from the Phillies, which will make the bullpen at least five deep. Ryan Perry, acquired from the Tigers in the trade for Colin Balester, could emerge as a factor in the pen as the season goes on.
Nationals fans have a lot to be excited about. This is a team that should compete in the NL East despite the strength at the top with the Phillies, Marlins and Braves. The question is, when will they make their move? I expect them to compete for most of the season and fade at the end, when the innings limit creeps up on Strasburg and Harper feels the fatigue of a full MLB season. Vegas puts Washington's O/U at 84.5, which I think is certainly obtainable. However, the parity of the National League means there will be so many teams around the same win total so I think the Nationals will be under the 84.5, at 79-83, 4th place in the NL East.
One thing to watch is barring injuries, this team is pretty set. The fact that they may not have to make any improvements around the trading deadline can either help or hurt them. Help by keeping the same clubhouse and if the chemistry is good, there is no chance the progress can be disrupted. If they are competitive and need a player to get them over the edge, there may not be room and they could lose out that way.