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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

Red Sox move Clay Buchholz to the bullpen

BOSTON, MA - MAY 26:  Clay Buchholz #11 of the Boston Red Sox is relieved during the sixth inning against the Colorado Rockies  at Fenway Park on May 26, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Red Sox manager John Farrell announced Friday that Clay Buchholz has been moved to the bullpen.

Buchholz was lit up for six runs on Thursday in just the latest poor outing in a year full of them thus far. His ERA now sits at a lofty 6.35 and he is posting a career low strikeout rate of 5.9 per nine innings while both his walk rate and his home run rates have spiked. His WHIP — 1.465 — is the worst he’s posted since 2008.

Eduardo Rodriguez will take his place in the rotation when he comes off the disabled list. He’ll get what would have been Buchholz’s next start on Tuesday.

According to the depth chart, Buchholz was the Red Sox’ second starter. He’s been their worst starter by far this year, however, and now he’s likely a long man who will be seeing mopup duty for the foreseeable future.

Jurickson Profar called up, to get his first MLB action since 2013

Jurickson Profar
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The Texas Rangers have called up infielder Jurickson Profar from Triple-A Round Rock. He’s starting at second base and batting leadoff for the Rangers.

Profar has not seen action in the bigs since the end of the 2013 season, having missed two seasons with shoulder injuries. He has batted .284/.356/.426 with five homers and four steals across 189 plate appearances with Round Rock this season, however, and seems to be healthy again. His stay with the Rangers could be short — he’s basically coming up to fill in for Roughned Odor — but he’s still just 23 and it’s not hard to imagine him making another go of it as a big league regular eventually.

Here’s hoping anyway.

Jose Bautista’s suspension is upheld

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Major League Baseball has upheld Jose Bautista‘s one-game suspension arising out of the Rougned Odor fracas. Bautista tried to have it thrown out on appeal, but really, if you get one game they’re not gonna budge on that. Maybe if they start with half-game suspensions they’ll be room to work, but when the choice is one or none, MLB is going to stick with one.

Bautista will serve the suspension tonight against the Red Sox. Ezequiel Carrera will take his place in right field.

What’s on tap: previewing tonight’s action

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JULY 13:  Julio Urias of the World Team during the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Target Field on July 13, 2014 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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The big game is in New York, where Julio Urias makes his major league debut against Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets. Urias, 19, has 27 consecutive scoreless innings under his belt. All at Triple-A, of course. The debuts of young pitchers tend not to go too well, but at the very least you’ll see a guy with electric stuff and you’ll be able to say you saw him back when he was just a lad.

Another nice matchup pits Jaime Garcia against Max Scherzer. Garcia has struggled of late but is always capable of a big game. Scherzer has had some of the biggest games of the past couple of years. Masahiro Tanaka vs. Chris Archer is another matchup with star power, even if Archer hasn’t lived up to his billing of late. Tanaka has only pitched on game in Tropicana Field but it was a great game, tossing seven shutout innings while striking out eight. He may be the only person alive who likes it there.

Here’s tonight’s slate. And, well, this afternoon’s game in Chicago too:

Philadelphia Phillies (Adam Morgan) @ Chicago Cubs (Jon Lester), 2:20 PM EDT, Wrigley Field

St. Louis Cardinals (Jaime Garcia) @ Washington Nationals (Max Scherzer), 7:05 PM EDT, Nationals Park

Boston Red Sox (Joe Kelly) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Aaron Sanchez), 7:07 PM EDT, Rogers Centre

Baltimore Orioles (Mike Wright) @ Cleveland Indians (Trevor Bauer), 7:10 PM EDT, Progressive Field

Los Angeles Dodgers (Julio Urias) @ New York Mets (Jacob deGrom), 7:10 PM EDT, Citi Field

New York Yankees (Masahiro Tanaka) @ Tampa Bay Rays (Chris Archer), 7:10 PM EDT, Tropicana Field

Miami Marlins (Adam Conley) @ Atlanta Braves (Williams Perez), 7:35 PM EDT, Turner Field

Pittsburgh Pirates (Jonathon Niese) @ Texas Rangers (Cole Hamels), 8:05 PM EDT, Globe Life Park in Arlington

Cincinnati Reds (John Lamb) @ Milwaukee Brewers (Zach Davies), 8:10 PM EDT, Miller Park

Chicago White Sox (Miguel Gonzalez) @ Kansas City Royals (Danny Duffy), 8:15 PM EDT, Kauffman Stadium

San Francisco Giants (Matt Cain) @ Colorado Rockies (Tyler Chatwood), 8:40 PM EDT, Coors Field

San Diego Padres (Christian Friedrich) @ Arizona Diamondbacks (Robbie Ray), 9:40 PM EDT, Chase Field

Detroit Tigers (Michael Fulmer) @ Oakland Athletics (Sean Manaea), 10:05 PM EDT, Oakland Coliseum

Houston Astros (Mike Fiers) @ Los Angeles Angels (Matt Shoemaker), 10:05 PM EDT, Angel Stadium of Anaheim