The Washington Nationals failed to meet expectations in 2013, finishing the year with a mediocre 86-76 record. Hitting was the Nationals’ ultimate undoing, as they finished 16th in the MLB with a .251 team batting average. Jayson Werth, however, had a career year, hitting .318 while hitting 25 home runs. Washington’s pitching was strong throughout the year, posting a 3.58 team ERA which was good for 8th in all of baseball.
The Nationals have high goals and expectations once again in 2014. All of the team’s positional starters return, and the addition of Doug Fister to the starting rotation should be an improvement over the declining Dan Haren. Although the Atlanta Braves will once again be one of the better teams in the MLB, this Nationals team has the talent and experience to win the NL East and make a deep run in the playoffs.
The time to win is now for the Nationals. Many of the team’s most talented players are in the peak of their careers, and last year’s disappointment should motivate 2014′s edition of the squad. The Nationals must have improved pitching from their bullpen, as well as better production off the bench. Throughout spring training players will have the opportunity to compete for both of these positions of need, while new Manager Matt Williams hopes to find the right guys to lead his team back to the playoffs.
Best Case Scenario
If the Nationals season goes as those around the organization hope, the team will at the very least when the NL East. However, with the amount of talent on Washington’s roster, headlined by budding superstar Bryce Harper, they have the ability to make a deep run into the playoffs and potentially win the World Series. Starting pitching goes a long way in the postseason, and with a rotation led by Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals have the chance to bring a championship to Washington.
Most Important Nationals
Consistent trips to the disabled list have hindered Wilson Ramos‘ career to date. If he is able to stay healthy for all of 2014, he can become one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. He hit 16 home runs in 2013 while only playing in 78 games. By playing in a full season, the young power hitting catcher could reach 30 home runs in 2014.
The Nationals also do not have a back up they trust to play consistently if Ramos gets injured. His health would limit the playing time of the unknown backup catcher, which could be the Jhonatan Solano or Sandy Leon. Both have struggled at the plate during their short MLB careers.
Ryan Zimmerman is also important to the Nationals’ title hopes in the coming year. His shoulder surgery has hurt his defense, resulting in more errors than usual from the sure-handed Zimmerman. If his shoulder has improved during the offseason, the Nationals can improve their defense by Zimmerman reducing his 21 errors from a season ago. Also, his .275 batting average was his worst since 2007, and one would believe that better health would result in a better average in the future.
To win the World Series next year, the Nationals must have Ramos, Zimmerman, and Bryce Harper all at 100%. All three players possess star potential at the plate and in the field, and maximizing their production is crucial to keep up with baseball’s most talented rosters.
Potential Breakout Players
One name that immediately comes to mind is Zach Walters. He is no guarantee to make the opening day roster, but his production in the minor leagues has put him in prime position. At AAA Syracuse in 2013, Walters hit for a .253 average while mashing 29 home runs. His power off the bench could come into use this year due to the loss of veteran Chad Tracy. I expect Walters to beat out Danny Espinosa for a spot on the roster out of spring training, and his impact on the major league club should be immediate.
Many of the Nationals prospects entry to the MLB is currently blocked by major league veterans. Brian Goodwin and Steven Souza will probably not be called into action this year, though they could be everyday players in the future.
One pitcher that could see some time in Washington this year is A.J. Cole. He has had a 3.73 career ERA in the minors, and will start out the year in AA Harrisburg or AAA Syracuse. If there is an injury to a big named pitcher, expect the Nationals to look to A.J. Cole to eat some innings and prove he is major league ready.
Worst Case Scenario
The worst case scenario for the Nationals in 2014 is a repeat of 2013. They grind their way to a win total in the mid 80s and fail to make the postseason once again. Washington’s bullpen continues to falter late in games, and the Braves run away with NL East for the second year in a row.
Areas of Concern
I trust the Nationals hitters to improve as a team in 2014. They did not meet expectations at the plate last year, but a group of veteran hitters should fix the struggles of last season.
The bullpen, however, is a potential area of weakness. Rafael Soriano failed to strike out many hitters during the year, with a fastball frequently in the low 90s. Drew Storen was forced into the minor leagues for a portion of 2013 because of his high ERA. To reach their goals in 2013, the back end of Washington’s bullpen must improve its failures from 2013.
Who Needs to Bounce Back from a Down 2013
The two players who most need to bounce back in 2014 are also the two that are the Nationals primary concerns, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano. Storen posted a disastrous 4.52 ERA a season ago, and must pitch drastically better for the Nationals to win tight ballgames. In 2011 Storen had 43 saves, and if he can regain his early career form, the Nationals will be one step closer to reducing any glaring weaknesses.
Soriano is entering the final year of his 2 year contract, and will head into the season as the Nationals’ closer. His 6.9 K/9 rate was well below his career average, but he hopes dropping ten pounds over the winter can add to his velocity in the future. The Nationals are confident in 8th inning man Tyler Clippard, but more consistent pitching from Storen and Soriano is a must if the Nationals bullpen is to return to 2012 form.
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