Washington Nationals Preview

The Washington Nationals lived through a disappointing 2013 season, one in which they had high expectations and weren’t afraid to share them publicly. In spite of a late-season spurt that made things moderately interesting, the Nationals still finished out of the playoffs and got themselves a new manager in Matt Williams. What’s the outlook in the nation’s capital for 2014? Here’s the Notebook Nine, our focal points on this year’s Nationals team…

*Las Vegas is bullish on Washington. The Over/Under on the win props is 89.5. While that might not seem extraordinary, keep in mind that these numbers are usually pretty conservative and only three teams (St. Louis, LA Dodgers, Detroit) have a prop of 90 or higher. Washington’s 6-1 odds to win the National League pennant rank behind only the Cards and Dodgers. And the 12-1 price tag to win the World Series is dead even with the last year’s champion Boston Red Sox. The smart money clearly sees 2013 as an aberration in Washington.

*It begins with starting pitching in Washington. And while the media has focused on Stephen Strasburg, the 2-3-4 spots in this rotation are devastating. Gio Gonzalez has four straight years of 30-plus starts and ERAs in the low 3s. Jordan Zimmerman has two years of basically the same. Doug Fister was acquired from Detroit and after a career of ERAs in the mid-3s, now Fister gets to face lineups that don’t have a DH. Any one of these three is capable of winning a Cy Young Award.

*Strasburg is still pretty good himself. His 8-9 record last season was more about a lack of run support than anything he was doing. The righthander’s ERA stays right around 3. The back end of the rotation is the bigger question mark. Ross Detwiler showed such promise in 2012, but got knocked around and had injury problems last year. He’s still a good candidate to win the #5 starter job and have a turnaround year, but Williams is also seriously evaluating kids Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan for this spot.

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*If there’s the one thing the offense could use it’s more players who generate even moderately high on-base percentages. Only three players even cleared the .340 threshold last year in OBP and that’s not a high bar. Players who have to improve are Denard Span (.327), Anthony Rendon (.323) and Ian Desmond (.331). Rendon is the most likely, a 23-year-old second baseman who looked pretty good as he broke into the majors last year.

*Desmond, a 28-year-old shortstop, might need to up his OBP, but at least he’s hitting for pretty decent power, with a .453 slugging percentage. Desmond’s overall offensive numbers have improved each of the last two seasons and he’s a good candidate for a breakout year all the way around. On the flip side, 34-year-old first baseman Adam LaRoche fell hard after his .343 OBP/.510 slugging year of 2012 and is a good candidate to keep sliding.

*Bryce Harper made solid improvement in his second year in the major leagues, with his OBP jumping to .368. Harper slugged .486, a nice number, but apparently he wants more. He vowed to put on weight and come to spring training bigger, and he was apparently as good as his word. Recent photos make it look like Harper’s gone to six meals per day. To each his own, but unless there’s some plan for him to play offensive tackle for the Redskins while Robert Griffin III plays a little outfield, I can’t imagine this is a good idea.

*The bullpen is very deep, so between this and the starting pitching, if the offense can squeak out even a few runs, it will have a big impact. The setup crew alone has established relievers in Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammens and Jerry Blevins. Drew Storen had a tough year last year, but he’s young, capable and in 2011 demonstrated an ability to close games if necessary.

*Rafael Soriano has the ninth inning secure, with 40-plus save seasons in three of the last four years and the one year he didn’t was 2011 with the New York Yankees when he did setup work for Mariano Rivera. Soriano is 34-years-old and while he’s getting up there, he should have more than enough gas in the tank.

*Ryan Zimmerman at third base and Jayson Werth in right field are the veteran anchors in this lineup. Zimmerman is good for around 25 home runs, a batting average about .285 and a combination of plate discipline and power to the alleys that keep his OBP and slugging solid. Werth, after the disastrous 2011 season that followed his $126 million contract, has improved each year sense, and with a .398/.532 stat line in 2013, he looks back in the All-Star form that won him that contract to begin with.

I have mixed feelings regarding this team. On the one hand…the pitching is so strong top to bottom, that I would imagine I’ll pick them to win the NL East when that gets finalized just prior to the March 31 opener, and that likely means they’ll win over 90 games.

On the other hand, when we hone in on the specifics of the betting number, I have some concerns. Washington didn’t win 90 games last year and has made no notable improvements. We don’t know how good Williams is going to be in the dugout. I believe picking an Over/Under is more about weighing these percentages than simply guessing whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic, so I’m going to lean to the Under.