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

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Red Sox 5, Mariners 0: Chris Sale dominated Seattle with seven shutout innings, allowing only four hits and striking out 13 damn dudes. I’m so old that I still remember people saying he was too lanky and slight to hold up in the big leagues. Hell, I probably even said it once or twice. I’m not necessarily a fan of his really, but his continued dominance in the big leagues makes me happy if, for no other reason, than it reminds us that none of us know anything and that cool stuff happens all the time.

Indians 12, Tigers 2: I was watching the England-Panama World Cup match yesterday morning and, once it got to 5-0, I asked people on Twitter who know more about soccer than I do (i.e. everyone) to characterize the level of blowout that was in baseball terms to help me understand what I was seeing. Most people described it as the sort of score that, while occurring with at least some regularity in league or international play, was not necessarily newsworthy. A good shellacking to be sure, the sort of which you do not see every day, but one which is not historic or anything. The point was, that while you may see an occasional comeback from, say, 3-0, you NEVER see it from 5-0 (or later 6-0). Which was to say, in baseball terms, it was like the Tigers getting beat 12-2 by Cleveland.  I didn’t watch this game, so I have no opinion if anyone’s heroics here — say, Edwin Encarnacion‘s five RBI or the homers from Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez — were as cheap as Harry Kane’s hat trick (two PKs and an accidental deflection), but like Kane’s hat trick, the numbers still count.

Reds 8, Cubs 6: The Reds sweep the Chicago Cubs and have won seven in a row overall. The Cincinnati Reds. That team with Joey Votto, Eugenio Suarez and a bunch of guys you don’t think about all that often. This after they were down 5-0 early and 6-1 as late as the seventh inning. Jesse Winker — who on Friday I described as someone who “while not necessarily one of baseball’s future stars” — came off the bench to hit a rally-stoking three-run homer. Pitcher Mike Lorenzen, actually started the rally with a homer. This a week or so after my last time making a comment about how pitchers hitting is dumb and the DH should be universal. The Reds are surging too late to truly get back into the playoff picture, I suspect, but there are worse ways to spend the rest of the season than simply making everyone who thinks they know anything about baseball look silly.

Dodgers 8, Mets 7: The Dodgers hit seven — seven! — solo home runs. Kiké Hernandez and Cody Bellinger each hit two and Max Muncy, Joc Pederson and Justin Turner each smacked one. They needed all of them too, with Turner’s coming in the 11th inning to win the game. The Mets had a couple bombs themselves, with Kevin Plawecki hitting a three-run shot in the eighth to tie things up and force extras. The seven solo homers ties the record for the most in a big league game. The Dodgers win was their 12th straight victory over the Mets. L.A. has gone 25-9 since falling 10 games under .500 on May 16.

Rays 7, Yankees 6: Jake Bauers hit a walkoff homer in the bottom of the 12th to give the Rays a three-game sweep of the Yankees. In the ninth inning Clint Frazier of the Yankees hit a bomb that would’ve been a homer anyplace, but which hit a speaker hanging from a Tropicana Field catwalk which was caught on the ricochet for an out. That does sort of suck, but given how many homers that have flown out to the sort right field porch in Yankee Stadium would’ve been outs in other places, I think the amount of complaining Yankees fans can do about that one is somewhat limited. Everyone has a home park.

Braves 7, Orioles 3: The Braves win to avoid a four-game sweep at home at the hands of baseball’s worst team. Freddie Freeman hit a two-run single in the first, Dansby Swanson hit a pinch-hit, two-run homer late in the game and the Braves’ bullpen tossed four innings of one-hit ball against an O’s lineup that looked like it was happy to get out of town and back to their own beds in Baltimore having taken three of four.

Diamondbacks 3, Pirates 0: Clay Buchholz tossed five shutout innings but left with an injury. No worries, though, as the bullpen finished the job. David Peralta and John Ryan Murphy hit homers in the first and second innings, respectively, and there was nothing doing for anyone else for the rest of the game.

White Sox 10, Athletics 3: Yoan Moncada hit a three-run double and a three-run homer on his six-RBI day. Daniel Palka and Yolmer Sanchez also homered as the Sox broke a stretch in which they lost nine of ten. Or maybe they merely interrupted a stretch in which they lose eight of 11? I dunno, baseball has infinite end points and you can tell all kinds of stories about teams and players if you manipulate said end points.

Cardinals 8, Brewers 2Jose Martinez hit a three-run homer in the Cardinals’ five-run fourth, Harrison Bader reached four times and Luke Weaver was solid. The Cards salvage a split.

Twins 2, Rangers 0: Jose Berrios allowed only three hits in seven shutout innings, striking out 12 to help the Twins avoid a three-game sweep and to snap the Rangers’ seven-game winning streak.

Astros 11, Royals 3: Houston put up an eight-spot in the second inning with Yuli Gurriel hitting a grand slam. Jose Altuve drove in two runs and scored twice and Evan Gattis hit a pinch-hit homer. The Astros have won 15 of 17 and extend their AL West lead to 4.5 games.

Marlins 8, Rockies 5Derek Dietrich homered for this third straight game and also doubled and hit two singles. The Marlins starter, Caleb Smith, left with shoulder tightness early but the pen handled it form the second inning on, limiting the damage while Dietrich inflicted his. He’s hitting .410 in the month of June.

Giants 3, Padres 2: Hunter Pence hit a two-run double in the 11th to give the Giants the walkoff win. This after Cory Spangenberg had San Diego ahead in the top of the 11th with an RBI single. In other news, how many of you remembered that Hunter Pence was still playing?

Blue Jays 7, Angels 6: Another extra inning game, this one won by Kendrys Morales‘ homer in the top of the tenth. Curtis GrandersonAledmys Diaz and Devon Travis also homered for Toronto, who won on Saturday and Sunday to preserve a 2-2 split of the series.

Nationals 8, Phillies 6: Daniel Murphy hit a two-run single in the eighth — his third single of the night — which brought the Nats back from behind and put them ahead to stay. This after the Nats had flashed a message on the scoreboard — while they were behind — reminding fans that the last Metro train left the station in a few minutes. Nothing like the home town scoreboard encouraging fans to leave early. Anyway, Anthony Rendon homered and doubled, Bryce Harper hit three doubles. Michael A. Taylor had three singles himself as the Nats rattled off 17 safeties.