The Washington Nationals enter the 2012 campaign with huge expectations. Today, they start their season with the opener of a three-game set against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
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 this afternoon after missing most of last year recovering 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.
Strasburg, of course, burst onto the scene in 2010 when he struck out 14 Pirates in his big league debut and was 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA and 92 strikeouts before elbow issues forced him to shut it down in Sept. of that season. He eventually needed surgery and returned last Sept. to make five starts, going 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA in those outings.
"Strasburg is leading the pack," Gonzalez said. "He is the right man for the job, right there. ... I think Stras is definitely the man to set this rotation in the right direction. From there on, we are going to help him and follow him."
Strasburg will be opposed this afternoon by righty Ryan Dempster, who was just 10-14 last season to go along with a 4.80 ERA. Dempster was at his worst in the month of APril, as he was just 1-3 with a 9.58 ERA in six starts.
"You go out there and show how you're going to play from the get-go," Dempster said. "I'll be ready to do my job and be as prepared as I can and hopefully start the season the right way -- that's with a victory."
Fans of the Cubs have gotten used to waiting until next year. Well this season it really applies, because this Cubs team is going nowhere and quite possibly could be the worst team in baseball.
But their is hope. Why? Well because the team's biggest offseason acquisition came in the form of former Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, who earned everlasting fame as the man who put together World Series championship teams in 2004 and 2007 after the Red Sox had not won a title since 1918.
Now Epstein takes on an even bigger challenge - making the Cubs, a team without a world title since 1908, a World Series champion. He also brought in one of his main soldiers in Boston in Jed Hoyer to be the Cubs' GM.
Team Epstein made their presence felt early on, as they jettisoned volatile right-hander Carlos Zambrano to Miami and acquired highly-regarded first base prospect Anthony Rizzo from San Diego after brief flirtations with both Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols.
Still, this is a team that finished 71-91 a year ago and could be worse this year under new manager Dale Sveum, who replaces Mike Quade after also being a finalist for the managerial job in Boston.
Sveum's maiden voyage into the managerial ranks may be a bit rocky this season, but there is hope. You have to believe in Epstein, not to mention the team's stud shortstop Starlin Castro. And help is on the way in form of Rizzo, plus highly-regarded outfielder Brett Jackson.
"If we get timely hitting and our two corner guys live up to their capabilities, no less or no more, you have a chance to score runs," said Sveum. "The timely hitting is the biggest thing."
But, anyone hoping for the team to break that curse, you are going to have to keep hoping.