Still just 21, Bryce Harper is poised for a monster season. (Alex Brandon/AP)
2013 Record and Finish: 86-76, second place in NL East (twelfth overall)
2014 Projected Record: 96-66, first place in NL East
The Case For
Though they missed the playoffs last season, the Nationals were actually the best team in baseball over the final two months, posting a .630 winning percentage in August and September. That was even better than the .605 ball they played during their 98-win, NL East-title season of 2012, and is proof that when they're playing to their capabilities few teams will be able to keep up. This year, Washington should get a full season from Bryce Harper, who missed 44 games last season because of injury and is, when healthy, an MVP-caliber talent. Harper anchors a lineup that includes five players who hit at least 20 home runs in 2013, including Jayson Werth, whose .931 OPS made him one of the most underrated players in the game. The pitching staff figures to be the best in the National League: Stephen Strasburg should be headed for his first 200-inning season, and Jordan Zimmermann (19-9, 3.25 ERA in 2013) and Gio Gonzalez (32 wins, 3.12 ERA in two years in D.C.) are All-Stars and might make for the game's best 2-3 combo. Add in Doug Fister, who last year was the best fourth starter in baseball for the Tigers and was acquired in a trade, and the Nationals' rotation looks to be unmatched.
The Case Against
That late-summer surge masked the fact that, for the first two-thirds of the season, Washington dramatically underachieved, going a mediocre 52-56 from April through July. Harper's aggressive style of play not only chafed team management, but it also exposed him to injuries, and the Nats can't afford for their best player to miss as much time as he did last year. Strasburg, meanwhile, had a solid season in 2013 but has yet to take the leap to being the transcendent superstar everyone has expected him to be. Gonzalez and Zimmermann have been the team's real aces the past two seasons. Offensively, Werth is entering his age-35 season, and it remains to be seen if his outstanding 2013 was a return to form or an aberration (he had just a .756 OPS his first two years in D.C.). Denard Span, the prized offseason acquisition before last season, spent most of his first year with his new team in a slump. Second base is also unsettled, with Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa battling for the starting job. Rendon has the brighter future, but the fact that he couldn't wrest the job away from a player who batted .158 last year is cause for at least some concern.
X-Factor: Matt Williams
First-year managers rarely step into as ready-made a situation as the one Williams has inherited from Davey Johnson. The former Giants All-Star third baseman and, most recently, Diamondbacks third base coach has instilled a more aggressive style of play this spring. Johnson's experience with the young superstars he had managed in New York and his resume of success — he took four teams to the postseason before arriving in the nation's capital — made him a perfect fit for Strasburg, Harper and the rest of the callow Nats. But Williams has no such pedigree to lean on for managing both Harper, who has vowed not to alter his playing style, and Strasburg, whose workload has been the most consistently controversial topic in D.C. the past few years other than the Affordable Care Act.
Number To Know: 6-13
That was Washington's record against last season against the Braves, the team that won the NL East with surprising ease over the prohibitive favorite and defending division champion. Atlanta swept the Nats in D.C. the second week of the season and took two of three at Turner Field in late April and then again a month later, burying them in a hole from which they never climbed out of. This year, Washington will get a chance to serve notice early that it is the team to beat. The Nats host the Braves the second week of the season, then travel to Atlanta one week later for another three-game set. With the Mets, Phillies and Marlins all expected to struggle, the Braves figure to be the Nationals' only real challengers in the East, and Atlanta's pitching staff has been decimated by injuries. It's only April, but Washington will have a great chance to take charge of the division race very early.
Most overrated: Rafael Soriano
"Soriano’s stuff is kind of ordinary. He does have very good command, and that’s how he closes games. His body language makes me sick to my stomach, his act with the shirt coming out and all the other stuff makes me sick to my stomach. He’s an average closer, I think. He’s the highest paid closer in the game, but I don’t think he’s anywhere near that. There’s a lot of guys I’d much rather give the ball to than him."
Most underrated: Jordan Zimmermann
"I’m a huge Zimmermann guy. I crowned him their number one last year. I’ve loved him since the first time I saw him. He’s a great competitor. I don’t think people realize just how good he is. He’s a number-one starter that everyone has looked at, because he has pitched in the three slot, is that maybe he’s a two. He can be as dominant as anyone in the game. Look at his numbers. His numbers were ridiculously good last year."
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