The Washington Nationals took a big step forward last year in going from afterthoughts to contenders. A revamped rotation and the pending start of Bryce Harper's major league career could accelerate that process even more.
The Nationals' 80-81 finish last season (they had one game versus the Dodgers that was postponed due to rain and not made up) was their best since posting an 81-81 campaign back in 2005, the franchise's first in Washington after relocating from Montreal. Even more impressive, the Nats did so despite not having Adam LaRoche, Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman for large chunks of the season due to injury.
Those three are all expected to be big contributors for manager Davey Johnson, who returns for the 2012 season after taking over on an interim basis last season when Jim Riggleman resigned. Washington went 40-43 under Johnson.
While the Nationals return basically the same offense that hit just .242 last season, their strength -- like most of the National League East -- should be in their rotation. Strasburg will start on Opening Day after returning last year from Tommy John surgery, while Washington added free agent Edwin Jackson and southpaw Gio Gonzalez in a trade to an exciting and young starting five.
Washington showed just how series it is in getting back to respectability by getting in on the Prince Fielder sweepstakes this offseason, but ultimately lost out on the slugging first base free agent. Adding Fielder to the lineup would have even furthered the Nats' chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 1981, so instead the fan base is likely to focus on just finishing above .500 for the first time in nine years.
The pursuit of Fielder wasn't the only big story to come out of Washington camp this past winter. The club also endured a scary incident that involved the kidnapping of starting catcher Wilson Ramos in his home country of Venezuela. Thankfully, he was rescued two days after the Nov. 9 incident that saw him taken from home by four armed gunmen and eventually saw the arrest of eight people in connection with the kidnapping.
If was an alarming dose of reality to the baseball community, but with Ramos coming out of it physically unscathed the Nationals can simply focus on trying to make the upcoming season one of their best year.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Nationals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (80-81) - Third Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Gio Gonzalez (LHP), Brad Lidge (RHP), Edwin Jackson (RHP), Mark DeRosa (3B), Jason Michaels (OF), Chad Durbin (RHP), Xavier Paul (OF), Mark Teahen (3B), Ryan Perry (RHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Livan Hernandez (RHP), Ivan Rodriguez (C), Todd Coffey (RHP), Alex Cora (INF), Laynce Nix (OF), Jonny Gomes (OF), Doug Slaten (LHP), Brian Bixler (INF/OF), Collin Balester (RHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Ian Desmond (SS), Danny Espinosa (2B), Ryan Zimmerman (3B), Michael Morse (LF), Adam LaRoche (1B), Jayson Werth (RF), Wilson Ramos (C), Rick Ankiel/Roger Bernadina (CF)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Stephen Strasburg (RHP), Gio Gonzalez (LHP), Jordan Zimmermann (RHP), Edwin Jackson (RHP), John Lannan (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Drew Storen (RHP)
MANAGER: Davey Johnson
DOES THE NATS' ROTATION STACK UP TO REST OF DIVISION?
The Philadelphia Phillies have dominated the rest of the NL East with a star- studded rotation, while the Atlanta Braves have an excellent mix of young and talented arms. The Florida Marlins added some pieces to their rotation this winter as well, so it was smart of the Nationals to keep up.
Of course, they were already in good shape thanks to Strasburg, the top pick of the 2009 draft. Strasburg had his 2010 campaign cut short due to his arm injury and returned to make five starts towards the end of the most recent campaign. The 23-year-old was in already vintage form, striking out 24 batters over 24 innings, including 10 punchouts in his final start on Sept. 28.
The right-hander has put up some incredible numbers in 17 career starts, going 6-4 with 116 strikeouts over 92 innings to just 19 walks. He'll get the first of what figures to be many Opening Day starts and will go toe-to-toe with some of the game's best all year long, though the club maintains he'll be on an innings limit of 160.
General manager Mike Rizzo made sure to get some help for Strasburg and accomplished that goal almost flawlessly. Though the cost included a four-play package that featured one of Washington's top prospects in right-hander Brad Peacock, Rizzo was able to get the 26-year-old Gonzalez from the A's. The left-hander is coming off the best of his four professional seasons, posting a 16-12 record to go along with a 3.12 earned run average while adding to his career mark of 511 strikeouts over 535 1/3 innings.
Jackson adds a former 14-game winner to the rotation that also includes talented 25-year holdover Jordan Zimmermann and former Opening Day starter John Lannan, who won a season-high 10 games in 2011 and could eventually be dealt for offensive help. He secured the final spot in the rotation due to a hamstring injury that will put righty Chien-Ming Wang on the disabled list to open the season.
WHO IS THE HEART OF THE OFFENSE?
Zimmerman, armed with a new six-year deal believed to be worth $100 million with a team option for 2020, may be the face of the franchise, but injuries have prevented him from being the top on-field producer. An abdominal injury cost him 58 games last year and he has also battled rib and shoulder issues.
The third baseman hit .289 in 101 games in 2011, while last year's big free- agent pick up, Jayson Werth, struggled in his first season in the nation's capital. Inked to a monster seven-year, $126 million deal, Werth managed just a .232 average and struck out 160 times while hitting 20 homers with 58 runs batted in.
With Zimmerman and LaRoche (limited to 43 games with a left shoulder injury) hurt and Werth battling under the spotlight of a big contract, it was the 30- year-old Michael Morse who broke out as Washington's top hitter over a career- high 146 games. The right-hander led his club with a .303 average, 31 homers and 95 RBI and became only the fourth hitter in Washington Nationals history to hit over .300.
Morse gave Washington a source of power that was missing after the club lost free agent Adam Dunn during the 2011 offseason and is primed for another big season if Zimmerman, LaRoche and Werth can all hit and stay healthy around him. The return of LaRoche also shifts Morse back to left field, where he began last season before moving to first due to LaRoche's injury.
Assuming everything is okay from a mental stand point, Ramos could also become a big player in the Nats' lineup. As a rookie last year, the catcher put up respectable numbers with a .267 average, 15 homers and 52 RBI after starting the season mentoring under Opening Day starter Ivan Rodriguez.
SHOULD THE NATS BE CONCERNED WTIH STOREN'S ELBOW?
Given the closer role as a sophomore in 2011, righty Drew Storen exceeded expectations by posting 43 wins over 73 games to go along with a 6-3 record and 2.75 ERA. His 89.6 save percentage tied for sixth in the NL and he is only the third pitcher in Nationals/Expos history to reach 43 or more saves.
However, the 24-year-old -- taken nine picks after Strasburg in the '09 draft -- will not be ready for Opening Day due to a right elbow injury. The good news is that an MRI revealed no structural damage, but one would have to think that the loss of Strasburg to Tommy John surgery in recent memory will cause the Nationals to be extra careful with their closer.
Luckily, the Nationals solid bullpen offers options. Rizzo signed former Astros and Phillies closer Brad Lidge and he offers experience that includes a World Series title and 223 career regular-season saves. Lidge does have some injury concern as well, including a rotator cuff injury that led to him missing 97 games a season ago.
The save chances should come to whoever is taking the ball in the ninth inning with set-up man Tyler Clippard set to bridge the gap again. The righty earned his first All-Star appearance a season ago thanks to a 3-0 record and 1.83 ERA in 72 appearances spanning 88 1/3 innings. His 104 strikeouts ranked second among major league relievers and was highlighted with a May 6 appearance in which he fanned all six batters faced over a two-inning appearance.
X-FACTOR: BRYCE HARPER, OF
Harper dominated Single-A ball last season by hitting .318 with 14 homers and 46 RBI in 72 games, though his numbers took a bit of a hit at the next level. Still, Harper was in the mix to make the big league team and his odds increased when Washington failed to add another center fielder to the roster.
Ultimately, Harper was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse before the end of camp, but figures to get a call up at some point this season. The top pick of the 2010 draft hit .286 in nine spring training games and is currently ranked as the second-best prospect in baseball by MLB.com.
While with Syracuse, Harper will work on shifting from right field to center, a position without a long-term solution for the Nats. Harper had been in right during his minor league career last year after primarily being a catcher in college. There was thought of moving Werth to center, but it looks like the Nationals believe Harper has the athletic ability to fill that void.
If he lives up to the hype and can handle major league pitching, Harper could give the Washington lineup a huge jolt at some point this season without costing the franchise a thing personnel wise.
Even with the addition of a second wild card in each league, it would still be a stretch to consider the Nationals a playoff-caliber team. The club is still playing the development game with many players, including Harper, shortstop Ian Desmond, second baseman Danny Espinosa and Ramos. Strasburg also needs a bit more experience under his belt and Gonzalez must shift to a new league, leaving some questions with Washington's well-built rotation. Nationals fans may be sick of hearing that the club is right on the verge of being contenders, but with this core it is no longer a hope; it is a gameplan.