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

Marcus Stroman named World Baseball Classic MVP

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United States starter Marcus Stroman was named Most Valuable Player of the World Baseball Classic after helping lead the U.S. to its first ever WBC title on Wednesday night in an 8-0 victory over Puerto Rico. Stroman flirted with a no-hitter through six innings, but gave up a double to lead off the seventh before being relieved by Sam Dyson.

Stroman also pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings against the Dominican Republic in Pool C play on March 11. He struggled in Pool F play against Puerto Rico last Friday, surrendering four runs in 4 2/3 innings.

The WBC MVP award understandably goes to a player of the winning team. However, Wladimir Balentien of the Netherlands deserves special mention. In 26 at-bats during the WBC, he hit a double and had a WBC-high four home runs, 12 RBI, and 12 runs scored while putting up a .615/.677/.1.115 batting line. That’s MVP-esque as far as this tournament is concerned.

U.S. blanks Puerto Rico 8-0 to win first World Baseball Classic title

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The United States handed Puerto Rico its first loss in the World Baseball Classic, winning 8-0 for its first title in the fourth iteration of the tournament.

Puerto Rico starter Seth Lugo was matching Marcus Stroman zero-for-zero through the first two innings, but the U.S. broke out for a pair of runs when Ian Kinsler deposited a two-run home run just beyond the fence in left-center at Dodger Stadium. The U.S. tacked on two more in the fifth on RBI singles from Christian Yelich and Andrew McCutchen, pushing the lead to 4-0.

Meanwhile, Stroman was dealing. The right-hander, normally seen in a Blue Jays uniform, held Puerto Rico hitless through his first six innings, giving up just a lone walk. The U.S. put together a long rally in the top of the seventh, scoring three runs on three hits, two walks, and a hit batter. Stroman came back out for the seventh but immediately served up a double down the left field line to Angel Pagan. U.S. manager Jim Leyland immediately lifted Stroman from the game, bringing in Sam Dyson who escaped the inning without any further damage.

Pat Neshek allowed a leadoff single to Yadier Molina to begin the eighth, but induced a double-play, then worked around a two-out walk by striking out Kenny Vargas to end the frame.

In the ninth, David Robertson took over. He induced an infield pop-up from Enrique Hernandez. After Pagan singled up the middle, Francisco Lindor sharply grounded out to Eric Hosmer at first base for the second out. Finally, Robertson closed it out, inducing Carlos Correa to ground out to third base, making the U.S. 8-0 victors over Puerto Rico to win the World Baseball Classic.

Puerto Rico had an admirable run, defeating Venezuela, Mexico, and Italy to get out of Pool D undefeated. Then, in Pool F, it beat Venezuela again as well as the U.S. and the Dominican Republic to move to the semifinals. It narrowly edged Netherlands 4-3 in the semifinals to get into the finals.

The U.S. lost to the D.R. but beat Canada and Colombia to get out of Pool C. In Pool F, the U.S. lost to Puerto Rico and defeated the D.R again as well as Venezuela. The U.S. took down Japan in the semifinals to advance to the finals to play Puerto Rico.

The U.S. joins Japan (twice, 2006 and ’09) and the Dominican Republic (2013) as countries to win the World Baseball Classic. The 2017 tournament was a rousing success, setting attendance records, drawing over one million fans to ballparks to take in the games. It will hopefully encourage commissioner Rob Manfred and others to make a concerted effort to make the 2021 tournament bigger and better.