2013 Preview: Washington Nationals

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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

Dustin Pedroia leaves game with a sprained left wrist

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Bad news for the Red Sox today. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia was involved in a collision at first base with Jose Abreu of the White Sox. Pedroia stayed in the game at the time but was replaced by Josh Rutledge in the second.

The injury: sprained left wrist. Which, no, is not good, but there was some initial concern that he may have aggravated the knee which has been bothering him of late. They’ll no doubt provide an update after the game. As of now, the Sox lead the Sox 1-0 in the bottom of the third.

 

Brad Ausmus is not a fan of the Tigers’ schedule

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Everyone in baseball has a tough schedule. The season is a grind. Some teams, however, due to weather and happenstance, have stretches which are a tougher grind than others. The Tigers are in one of those right now.

Detroit played the Astros on Thursday night, and lost in a three-hour and thirty minute contest. It was a getaway day, er, night, and they didn’t get to Chicago to face the White Sox until the wee wee hours of the morning on Friday. Waiting for them: a double header which was to start at 4pm. The first game of it was rained out, though, so they woke up after a short “night’s sleep for nothing. Then the nightcap was delayed over an hour, giving them another late bedtime. On Saturday it was another double header, so it was another early wakeup and another long day at the park. And, of course, another day game on Sunday, before a flight to Kansas City.

This stretch has made Brad Ausmus grumpy. Here he was after Friday night’s late finish:

“Give some credit to the White Sox pitchers, give some credit to the schedule we have. We’ll try to get about 5 hours of sleep and come back tomorrow and play two more.”

He was particularly miffed at the scheduling of two doubleheaders in a row:

“You can’t control the weather but I think it would have been prudent to play the second game tomorrow in August,” he said. “That would have made a lot more sense to me.”

Ausmus did note, however, that it’s not the White Sox’ job to make a schedule that is convenient for their division rivals.

You can look at this in a few different ways. One one level, Ausmus is understandably upset about a particularly arduous stretch of games. On another level he’s probably trying to protect his players, who have looked flat, by changing the subject from their play to the schedule. On a different level, you could say that he’s making excuses for a team that is underachieving. And, of course, those three things are not mutually exclusive.

The thing is, though, that the Tigers have lost seven of ten, are five out of first place, four games under .500 and could conceivably leave their series with the Royals this week in dead last in the Central. Ultimately, extenuating circumstances like the weather and an unfortunate schedule don’t save a manager whose talented and highly-paid team struggles like the Tigers have. If they don’t turn it around soon, Ausmus could be hitting the bricks and the Tigers could be fixing to sell off and rebuild.