While federal government is quarreling over payroll taxes and debt, the Washington Nationals are making some serious headway in a town known for its gridlock.
The Nationals quietly finished 80-81 last season and found their way out of the NL East cellar their fans had been accustomed to. As the upcoming season approaches, Washington appears to be loading up talent for a shot at the divisional crown.
Oakland sent SP Gio Gonzalez, who had been at the top of many contenders wish lists, to the capital for four minor league prospects. This move bolsters and already competent rotation that includes a healthy Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and John Lannan. By adding Gio, they have arguably one of the five best rotations in the National League.
That rotation will be backed up by a bullpen lead by the two-headed monster of Tyler Clippard as the set-up man and Drew Storen as the closer. Clippard had 38 holds last year and an ERA below 2. Storen showed promise in his first full year in the closing role, converting 43 of 48 chances with a 8.84 K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings).
Those two will have plenty of opportunities to pitch, as the Nationals have also built an offense capable of putting up big numbers. 1B/OF Michael Morse had a breakout season when he was given the opportunity to play on a daily basis. Morse batted .303 with 31 HRs and 95 RBI, along with an impressive .910 OPS. Other infielders like SS Ian Desmond, 2B Danny Espinosa, and C Wilson Ramos showed flashes of their potential, and paired with Morse and all-star Ryan Zimmerman, could turn out to be one of the most power-laden infields in the majors.
In the outfield, CF Jayson Werth vastly under-performed in the first year of his 7 year, $126 million deal and heard about it from the fans. After batting under .265 for the first time since 2005, Werth should be in for a rebound year. He’s not as good as the contract says he is, but he’s nowhere near as bad as he played last season.
Another story line to watch for is that of Bryce Harper. There has been quite a bit of buzz regarding his status on the big league roster next season. His presence would bolster not only the batting order, but also the defense. Harper has good speed and if you match that up with an arm capable of throwing laser beams, you have a very strong defender. The only question with Harper is his maturity. Former baseball players and media alike criticized the young player when he taunted an opposing pitcher after a mammoth homer. Personally, I liked the kiss and could stand to see more fun like that in baseball, but I digress. I say that he will mature as the season wears on and is poised to have a huge rookie year.
General manager Mike Rizzo has done a brilliant job putting together this team. He could have rushed the future and made reckless moves to win quickly, which would’ve put the team at risk in the long run. Instead, he made calculated moves and has this team look like a contender with a long future ahead of them.
Much of the buzz in the NL East will feature the powerhouse Phillies and the suddenly deep-pocketed, new-look Marlins. Behind that buzz, however, you’ll find a team that’s flush with talent and ready to play the role of the dark horse in baseball’s deepest division.