Bryce Harper Reuters

2013 Preview: Washington Nationals


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up first: the Washington Nationals.

The Big Question: Are the Washington Nationals the best team in baseball?

It’s probably easier to make a case for them above any other team.

Let’s start with the rotation. It was a clear strength of the team last season, and now it has a new, improved look. Stephen Strasburg remains at the top but, unlike last year, he should be available all season. Gio Gonzalez was merely the third place Cy Young finisher last season.  Then comes Jordan Zimmermann who had perhaps the quietest sub-3.00 ERA, 195 innings pitched season in recent memory. With the departure of Edwin Jackson and John Lannan, Ross Detwiler – who, it should  be noted, turned in the Nationals’ strongest postseason start as Strasburg’s playoff rotation replacement – settles in as a strong fourth or fifth starter. Finally, there’s an intriguing gamble: free agent signing Dan Haren who, if his hip and back troubles are behind him, could prove to be the bargain signing of the offseason, providing the Nats with top-of-the-rotation quality on a relatively risk-free one- year deal.

The lineup was fourth in runs scored last year and, while there aren’t many changes apart from the addition of Denard Span in center, it’s not hard to see how it could improve. Bryce Harper is another year older, much more confident against big league pitching and is poised for a breakout season (if you don’t count what he did a 19 year-old as a breakout, which one very well could). Jayson Werth missed a lot of time last year with a bum wrist, but when he came back he was an on-base machine. With the return of Wilson Ramos the Nats have a nice 1-1A setup at catcher with Kurt Suzuki.There is not one lineup spot the Nats are punting offensively.

The bullpen, even if it remained the same as it was in 2012, would have been a strength as — its NLDS Game 5 meltdown notwithstanding — it ranked fourth in the league with a 3.20 ERA. But it didn’t remain the same. Rafael Soriano is now in the fold which allows Davey Johnson to move everyone else down a notch in terms of leverage.

Obviously they don’t play the games on paper, and if the best-looking team in the game always prevailed, the Nats wouldn’t have bowed out in the first round of the playoffs last year. But at this point in the year paper is really all we have. As far as that goes, it’s hard to say that anyone in baseball is better-constructed and more overall talented than the Washington Nationals.

What else is going on?

  • To the extent you worry about the pressure/expectations game, Davey Johnson didn’t do Nats fans any favors when he said “World Series or Bust” during the offseason. For a team that has had exactly one year of success to now be in the position where anything short of the World Series is considered a failure is, well, unusual. Johnson is a deft hand, obviously, but the Nats being anointed baseball’s best when the roster, more or less, has one playoff series under its collective belt may lead to a lot of hand-wringing if and when they go through rough patches.
  • As noted above, Strasburg is now fully armed and operational. But do they have to worry about losing Gio Gonzalez at some point this year? The early reports suggest that out of all of the players named in the Biogenesis documents Gonzalez is the least likely to be suspended for using performance enhancing drugs (at the moment it seems like everything he was given was OK under baseball’s rules), but there is something of a Damoclean sword hanging over the head of everyone who has been implicated. The Nats can’t do anything about it, but if Major League Baseball decides to suspend the Biogenesis players, the Nats could lose one of their best pitchers for 50 games.
  • Ryan Zimmerman had shoulder surgery in November. He’s apparently OK — in limited spring training action thus far he has tattooed the ball — but it’s worth watching the health of a guy who is a superstar when healthy but who has had some problems when the shoulder has acted up. And maybe the biggest worry is his throwing at third base.
  • When your expectations are “World Series or Bust” you don’t think too much about the prospects, but it’s worth noting that the Nats have an excellent one in infielder Anthony Rendon. He doesn’t have a position and his manager has noted that he needs reps in the minors — he only has one partial season and a nice Arizona Fall League stint under his belt — but if Zimmerman, Ian Desmond or Danny Espinosa go down, he could get his chance.

One can look at any team and find some nits to pick. But I dare say the Nats have the fewest nits. Being named baseball’s best team in March and a buck gets you nothing more than a soda, but that’s all we can do now: I’m calling the Nats baseball’s best team.

PREDICTION: First place, National League East

Giants interested in John Lackey

John Lackey
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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Ben Cafardo of the Boston Globe speculated on Sunday that there might be a connection between the Giants and veteran free agent right-hander John Lackey, and now FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reports that San Francisco is indeed in pursuit.

Rosenthal says the Giants, “like most clubs seeking pitching, [are] examining [a] wide range of options” in this starter-heavy free agent market. Lackey would make a ton of sense for any contender on something like a two-year deal. His free agency is tied to draft pick compensation, but that shouldn’t be much of a deterrent.

The 37-year-old right-hander registered a career-best 2.77 ERA across 218 innings (33 starts) this past season for the National League Central-champion Cardinals and he was St. Louis’ most reliable starter during the playoffs.

It’s well known that he wants to remain in the National League.

Angels sign catcher Geovany Soto to one-year contract

Geovany Soto
AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
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As first reported by beat writer Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, the Angels have signed free agent catcher Geovany Soto to a one-year major league contract.’s Alden Gonzalez says the deal is worth $2.8 million guaranteed.

Soto will offer some veteran presence at catcher for the Halos alongside 25-year-old Carlos Perez, who hit .250/.299/.346 as a rookie in 2015.

Soto slashed .219/.301/.406 with nine homers in 78 games this summer for the White Sox.

The 32-year-old backstop is a .246/.331/.434 career hitter at the major league level.

White Sox acquire right-hander Tommy Kahnle from Rockies

Tommy Kahnle
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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According to the official Twitter account of the Chicago White Sox, the club acquired right-hander Tommy Kahnle from the Rockies on Tuesday evening in exchange for minor league pitcher Yency Almonte.

Kahnle was designated for assignment by the Rockies last week in a flurry of moves made in preparation of next month’s Rule 5 Draft. The 26-year-old former fifth-round pick posted an ugly 4.86 ERA, 1.77 WHIP, and 39/28 K/BB ratio in 33 1/3 innings this past season for Colorado and he wasn’t much better at Triple-A Albuquerque.

Almonte, 21, had a 3.41 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 110/38 K/BB ratio in 137 1/3 innings this past season between Low-A Kannapolis and High-A Winston-Salem.

It’s a straight one-for-one deal of two non-prospects, and the timing of it — in the evening, with Thanksgiving approaching — has our Craig Calcaterra wondering whether an executive was just trying to get out of some family responsibilities …

Mark McGwire to become the Padres bench coach

Los Angeles Dodgers batting coach Mark McGwire roams the field during practice for the National League baseball championship series Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, in St. Louis. The Dodgers are scheduled to play the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS on Friday in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The other day Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Padres were in discussions with former Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire about their bench coach job. Today Jon Heyman reports that the deal is done and will soon be announced.

McGwire has been the hitting coach for Los Angeles for the past three seasons. When his contract was not renewed following the end of 2015 he was rumored to be up for the Diamondbacks’ hitting coach job. He likely view staying in Southern California to be a plus, as he makes his home in Irvine, which is around 90 miles from Petco Park. That’s a long commute, but Mac can afford the gas, I guess.