Heading into 2013 season, the expectations placed on the Washington Nationals are unique to any season in their limited history.
There's good reason for that as all the critical parts of the 2012 National League East division champions return, a team that won more games than any other in the majors last season. With the possibility of 200-plus innings for Stephen Strasburg, a healthy Ryan Zimmerman, a powerful young outfielder in Bryce Harper, the addition of speed at the top of the lineup in Denard Span and a revamped bullpen, led by former Yankees closer Rafael Soriano, the Nationals appear to have plenty of reason to be optimistic.
Last season, Strasburg was held under 160 total innings by the team as the team shut him down in early September. The Nationals' starting pitching struggled against the experienced Cardinals in a five-game series loss, and Strasburg would have been a big help there.
With the addition of veteran Dan Haren to the vaunted rotation, there are very little weaknesses there. Strasburg should lead the way, and All-Star Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler will help.
The outfield appears to be a strength as well. Rookie of the Year Harper moves to left field, Span takes over in center field and Jayson Werth goes to right field. Span also steps in as the leadoff hitter, letting Werth take his power bat to a lower part of the order.
Werth said they need games to get used to being side-by-side in the outfield.
"It takes time," Werth told the Washington Post. "You got to get a feel for each other. We've yet to have a ball in between us, or anything close, really. Even so, just standing out there, getting an idea of where each other plays, hearing each other's voices, it's good."
The infield again features Ryan Zimmerman (3B), Ian Desmond (SS), Danny Espinosa (2B) and Adam LaRoche (1B). Zimmerman and Espinosa had shoulder issues last season, but both appear to be back healthy and swinging well in spring training.
Kurt Suzuki and a healthy Wilson Ramos occupy the catching spot. Suzuki was a welcomed midseason addition from the Oakland A's, and Ramos expects to soon be back to 100 percent following major knee surgery.
Suzuki calls a smart game and has experience with Gonzalez while Ramos is a big body. His bat can provide some end of the order power to be the second wave of offense.
The bench has equal parts of power, experience and versatility. Tyler Moore, Chad Tracy and Steve Lombardozzi all bring different talents to the field, and all three can play various positions on defense.
The bullpen is short on left-handers, but the addition of Soriano quickly changes the end of games. Tyler Clippard, who has quietly had a very consistent spring, Drew Storen and Soriano appear to be excellent answers to setup and close games.
Left-hander Zach Duke can also start, while Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus are solid rally stoppers. Henry Rodriguez and a soon-to-be healthy Christian Garcia wrap up what could be a cohesive middle-inning group in the bullpen.
One big question is the lack of left-handed relief. Gone are left-handers Tom Gorzelanny, Michael Gonzalez and Sean Burnett. Veteran J.C. Romero, who pitched well for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, was signed late in spring training and has a chance to make an impact as the season goes on.
Can a power right-hander like Rodriguez, if he can find the plate, be able to replace the southpaws in the bullpen absent from this year's roster?
"I'd rather have a right-hander that can get both of them out than a left-hander who can't," manager Davey Johnson told Masnsports.com.
Will the Nationals repeat their breakout season of 2012? Will they be able to go farther? It is a given they will not be able to sneak up on anyone, especially in the N.L. East, but if their pitching and defense keeps them in games, they will have a chance.
Of course, a lot can happen in 162 games. They had a lot of injuries last year and pitching limitations, and still won 98 games. They hope to be able to be stronger with the experience of a rough postseason to motivate them in 2013.
MLB Team Report - Washington Nationals - NOTES, QUOTES
--OF Bryce Harper sat out of the March 27 game to rest a sore left thumb, but he wants to return for the team's exhibition game March 29 in Washington.
Harper jammed his thumb March 22 while batting against Detroit and aggravated it March 26 against Miami. Manager Davey Johnson recommended that Harper give it a rest. The hot-hitting Harper is batting .476 with three home runs and 14 RBI in Grapefruit League play through March 27.
--RHP Stephen Strasburg gets the nod to start Opening Day and will have the restraints of an innings limit lifted in 2013. Strasburg admitted early in camp that knowing he was going to be shut down in September was on his mind and might have contributed to uneven late-season performances. General manager Mike Rizzo said before this season that Strasburg is free to pitch for as long as necessary this season as the team hopes for an even longer October run.
--RHP Jordan Zimmermann felt like he accomplished what he set out to do in spring training -- stay healthy and get a lot of work in as he prepares for April. He was also able to fine tune his pitches. "I'm pretty much ready to go," Zimmermann told the Washington Post. "I definitely feel good. The fastball is right where I want it, and the changeup has come a long ways. I feel like I can throw it any time."
--2B Danny Espinosa hopes for a more consistent season after finishing spring training strong at the plate. Espinosa's 2012 campaign was hurt due to a troublesome shoulder, and his strikeout total rose to an uncomfortable 189, the highest of his career. He has also struck out 355 times the past two seasons, with particular trouble making contact from the left side of the plate. But his contact has improved in spring, and he continues to show a good amount of power.
--RHP Chris Young opted out of his minor league contract with the Nationals after an effective four-inning stint March 25 lowered his spring ERA to 2.25. Young gave up just one run, which was unearned, in his final outing against the Astros. There was no room for him in the Nationals' loaded rotation, so he'll look for a big-league contract with another team. Young, 33, went 4-9 with a 4.15 ERA in 20 starts for the Mets last season.
--The Nationals received both of their major league Rule 5 draftees back last week. 2B Jeff Kobernus was returned from the Tigers and LHP Danny Rosenbaum was given back by the Rockies. Kobernus has hit .282 in back-to-back minor league seasons and Rosenbaum was their high Class A Player of the Year in 2011.
BY THE NUMBERS: 1 -- LHP Zach Duke is the only southpaw in the bullpen after the team did not re-sign LHP Tom Gorzelanny, LHP Sean Burnett or LHP Michael Gonzalez. Veteran LHP J.C. Romero could be an option sometime during the season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "'World Series or bust.' That's probably the slogan this year. But I'm comfortable with that." -- Manager Davey Johnson.
MLB Team Report - Washington Nationals - ROSTER REPORT
The Nationals head into 2013 with what is considered their most talented 25-man roster since they arrived in D.C. in 2005. The addition of CF Denard Span, RHP Rafael Soriano and RHP Dan Haren were the major offseason changes to a team that won a major league-leading 98 games last season.
RHP Stephen Strasburg has no innings limit this season and LF Bryce Harper is the coming off a Rookie of the Year honor. 3B Ryan Zimmerman, RF Jayson Werth and 2B Danny Espinosa all should be back healthy to maintain the power in a potent lineup.
1. RHP Stephen Strasburg
2. LHP Gio Gonzalez
3. RHP Jordan Zimmermann
4. RHP Dan Haren
5. LHP Ross Detwiler
Strasburg should be able to go 200-plus innings this season and Gonzalez and Detwiler also showcased their talents in the World Baseball Classic. There is concern about whether Haren can return to the form he often showed earlier in his career.
Detwiler could move into the No. 4 spot after an impressive Game 4 outing last season against the Cardinals in the divisional series. Zimmermann has worked to fine tune his fastball and if his change-up can improve, it will make life difficult for hitters trying to advance runners.
There is no true sixth starter available if injury to one of the top five occurs. Veteran RHP Chris Young looked good in camp, but he opted out of his minor league contract. LHP Zach Duke and RHP Craig Stammen can start, if necessary, from the bullpen. LHP John Lannan has moved on to the Phillies and Triple-A RHP Yunesky Maya has never been able to get enough batters out to be a legitimate major league No. 5.
RHP Rafael Soriano (closer)
RHP Drew Storen
RHP Tyler Clippard
LHP Zach Duke
RHP Craig Stammen
RHP Ryan Mattheus
RHP Henry Rodriguez
This was a strong part of the 2012 roster, but a trio of left-handers moved on (Tom Gorzelanny, Michael Gonzalez and Sean Burnett).
There was concern after Storen blew a save opportunity in Game 5 of the division series last season to the Cardinals, and how that would mentally affect the young reliever in the long term. Some believed that the acquisition of Soriano meant that the franchise had lost a bit of confidence in Storen. General manager Mike Rizzo insisted that was not the case.
Having Clippard, Storen and Soriano to close out games appears to be an advantage. The slightly altered middle relieving corps, including the return of Rodriguez, who can throw 100-mph fastball but lacked control as the season wore on as he battled an elbow injury, remains a question mark. Stammen and Mattheus were solid most of last season. RHP Christian Garcia begins the season on the 15-day disabled list with a sore forearm.
1. CF Denard Span
2. RF Jayson Werth
3. LF Bryce Harper
4. 3B Ryan Zimmerman
5. 1B Adam LaRoche
6. SS Ian Desmond
7. 2B Danny Espinosa
8. C Kurt Suzuki
For the first time, the Nationals have a legitimate and consistent prototypical leadoff hitter -- Span. Manager Davey Johnson could move Werth further down in the lineup or put Harper in the cleanup spot, to take advantage of their power numbers. Werth at No. 2 is good because of his speed and on-base percentage.
With the return of C Wilson Ramos, Nos. 1 through 8 would all be serious power threats. Espinosa is a switch-hitter who struggled from the left side of the plate last season. Desmond has quietly become one of the most important bats in the lineup and worked all spring on improving contact.
This team did not steal bases very well last season, so they are hoping that Span and Werth at the top of the order will allow for more men-on-base opportunities for Zimmerman, Harper and LaRoche. Will the loss of 1B/LF Michael Morse (Mariners) in the middle of the lineup slow run-producing or can this trio pick up the slack?
INF Chad Tracy
INF/OF Tyler Moore
INF/OF Steve Lombardozzi
OF Roger Bernadina
C Wilson Ramos
The Nationals made sure to lock up Tracy before the end of last season because of his pinch-hitting abilities. Moore could have a breakout season and would start on several less-talented teams. Lombardozzi can play several positions, has good on-base numbers and makes few defensive mistakes. Ramos also can be a starter if not for his rehabbing of an injured knee. Bernadina adds a quick left-handed bat and can run down most outfield fly balls with his speed in center field.
--OF Bryce Harper (sore left thumb) was hurt March 22, and he nursed the injury the next week. He still expected to be ready for Opening Day.
--RHP Christian Garcia (partial tear in forearm tendon) was hurt Feb. 21. He went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22. He probably will miss the season's first month, according to the Washington Post.