No. 8 Nationals: Are they ready to win the NL East?

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
'13 Nationals go 'bust'; need to hire new skipper
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FILE - This Sept. 22, 2013 file photo shows Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper watches his team play as he waits for his turn at bat against the Miami Marlins in the ninth inning of their baseball game at Nationals Park in Washington. After "World Series or Bust" went bust, the Washington Nationals head into the offseason earlier than expected. And there are plenty of key questions facing the club, most importantly: How to replace the man who uttered the "bust" proclamation, lame-duck manager Davey Johnson. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Editor’s note: Yahoo Sports will rank every team in Major League Baseball from 30th to 1st before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Washington Nationals.

2013 record: 86-76
Finish: Second, NL East
2013 payroll: $118.3 million
Estimated 2014 opening day payroll: $120 million
Yahoo Sports offseason rank: 8
Nationals in six words: Can Nats win? Clown question, bro.

OFFSEASON ACTION
The Nationals just didn’t look like the Nationals last season – they left those 12 wins somewhere – and maybe it was the hitting with runners in scoring position, or the uncomfortably high number of errors given a strikeout starting rotation, or the flat bullpen, or the lack of hits off the bench, or the way they cruised into spring training after winning 98 games the year before, or the fact Davey Johnson had his moments of nutty.

Whatever it was, they tottered along at mediocre for too long, and were 7-24 against the three National League division winners, and so by the time they got around to that 18-win September it was already time to send Johnson into retirement, his “World Series or bust” declaration squarely on the latter.

[Related: No. 9 Reds: It's all about pitching ... and a particular former pitcher ]

All of which left GM Mike Rizzo with little choice but to try it all again, because there’s too much talent to see it any other way, and too much invested in that talent. As the replacement for Johnson, Rizzo chose Matt Williams, who’d not managed before at the big-league level but is very earnest. By the looks of things, there’ll be no more cruising into spring training.

Rizzo traded for sinkerballer Doug Fister almost before anyone knew sinkerballer Doug Fister was available, sending to the Detroit Tigers three players – Robbie Ray, Ian Krol and Steve Lombardozzi. The trade was widely viewed as a victory for Rizzo, though neither Ray nor Krol, both pitchers, has reached his 23rd birthday, so we’ll know more about that in a few years. Fister replaces Dan Haren in the Nationals’ rotation.

The Nationals also added Jerry Blevins as a bullpen arm and Nate McLouth for outfield depth. The Fister acquisition alone was enough to ensure the offseason was well spent.

REALITY CHECK

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Stephen Strasburg is aiming to top 200 innings in a season for the first time. (AP Photo)

So, we’re back in on the Nationals, because this is the year Stephen Strasburg throws 200 innings and pitches into October, and Bryce Harper quits running into stuff that’s more stubborn than he is, and Jayson Werth gets back to playing 150 games, and everybody stops fussing about who pitches what inning in relief.

The rotation – Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Fister and whatever comes of the Ross Detwiler-Tanner Roark-Nate Karns pitch-off – could be the best in the game. The offense has to be better, if only because Harper is a year older (and wiser) and presumably will play more than 118 games, and Werth will play more than 129, and Ian Desmond has become one of the best shortstops in the game, and Adam LaRoche is a better hitter than a .237 batting average and .735 OPS.

Of course, it might be enough that it’s 2014, the Nats – after the glory of 2012 – having learned their lesson about life as the hunted vs. life as the hunter. They played well enough over August and September to feel good about themselves, and get a new voice in Williams, and still have all that pitching to lean on.

Still, transition is brewing. Ryan Zimmerman is expected to play some first base, spelling LaRoche against the tougher lefties. Given his shoulder issues, and their effect on his throwing (though he did appear more comfortable later in the season), Zimmerman could be the regular first baseman by 2015. Also, second baseman Danny Espinosa is healthy again after fighting through a broken wrist and losing his job to Anthony Rendon last season. That’ll be one of the more interesting position competitions of spring.

A fresh start and a division weakened by the departures from Atlanta of Brian McCann and Tim Hudson means the Nationals are favored to win the NL East, just as they were last year, which maybe is how this went sideways to begin with.

SAVIOR
Bryce Harper is now 21, which, we believe, is the legal savior age.

Over the better part of two seasons, both before he turned 21, Harper has proven to be skilled, relentless and reasonably humble, if somewhat vulnerable to left-handed pitching.

Still, we wonder what kind of player Harper will be when he quits garroting himself on the out-of-town scoreboard. How about this: .344 batting average, .430 on-base percentage, 1.150 OPS. That’s where Harper’s numbers lay at the end of last April, before walls attacked, through 107 plate appearances. He had nine home runs and 18 RBI.

So, it’s coming. Maybe not over a full season. But maybe so. And maybe soon.

HAIKU
They never came near
To all they had held so dear
Natitude, I fear

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