In 2012, the upstart Nats barged to not only the NL East title but also the best record in baseball. Bryce Harper turned in a legendary season by the rare and lofty standards of 19-year-old big leaguers, and the rotation was baseball's best. Davey Johnson reaffirmed his standing as one of the best managers of all-time, and Gio Gonzalez contended for the Cy. It all seemed to get a bit lost, though, in the controversy surrounding the "Strasburg Shutdown" and the crushing manner in which the Nats lost to the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLDS.
Will the 2013 season provide a happier ending for Washington? Let's have a look ...
Under-the-radar offseason transaction
In this instance, I'll cite a move the Nats didn't make: They saw no need to add a second lefty out of the bullpen. And that's a good thing, as it gives them roster flexibility elsewhere.
It's more than possible to thrive "despite" having only one left-hander in the bullpen (heck, the 1994 Expos rarely had any lefty relievers on the active roster), and the Nats, who will almost certainly break camp with a single LOOGY (Zach Duke) on the 25-man, recognize this. In part, it's the best right-handed setup corps in baseball that allows them such freedoms.
For their careers, RHPs Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard each show reverse platoon splits -- i.e., they've been more effective against left-handed batters than right-handed batters. How are they doing that? In Storen's case, it's likely because he throws pitches that feature arm-side run (i.e., away from left-handed batters) about two-thirds of the time overall and just one-fourth of the time against the opposite side.
In Clippard's case, it's even more extreme when a left-handed batter is at the plate. Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net, here are Clippard's pitch selections against the opposite side:
As indicated by the negative horizontal movement readings, 92 percent of Clippard's pitches vs. LHBs run away from lefties. If you're going to rely on stuff that moves laterally, then you'd best keep the ball away from platoon-advantaged hitters. Storen and Clippard do that exceptionally well, and that's in large part why Johnson and GM Mike Rizzo will almost certainly head north with only one narrowly skilled lefty specialist taking up a roster spot.
If 25-man rosters shake out as expected, then the Nationals, Royals, Cubs and Padres will be the lone teams to open the season with one left-handed reliever on the roster. In the Nats' case, it's a sign of strength.
Fantasy breakout: Bryce Harper
"Harper was supposed to be baseball's next great phenom, but the Angels' Mike Trout stole Harper's thunder in 2012. While Trout posted insane numbers and made highlight reel plays seemingly every day, Harper's accomplishments were nothing to scoff at. He took home NL rookie of the year honors while hitting .270 with a .340 on-base percentage, .477 slugging percentage and .817 OPS. Harper was particularly productive down the stretch, posting a .327/.384/.660/1.045 line in his final 44 games, which was accompanied by 26 extra-base hits (12 homers), 27 RBI and 37 runs. If you lose out on drafting Trout in the first round, Harper will turn into a nice consolation prize to be drafted in the rounds to follow." -- Michael Hurcomb [Full Nationals fantasy preview]
The rotation. Last season, the rotation paced the NL in ERA and FIP and ranked second in xFIP. (The latter two measures bode well for 2013.) As well, they led the NL in average game score and ranked fifth out of 16 in quality start percentage.
Can they be even better in 2013? Possibly. There's the prospect of getting additional innings from ace Strasburg, and Dan Haren, provided he stays healthy, should have no problem replicating the innings of the departed Edwin Jackson. Perhaps best of all is that all these gifted hurlers have, as a group, an average age of 27.2. So expect the Nats' rotation to again be among the very best in the game.
Finding a pronounced shortcoming on the part of a 98-win team is a bit of a challenge, but I'll go with this: production vs. left-handed pitching. Last season, the Nats ranked third in the NL in terms of OPS against righties. However, they placed a more modest sixth against lefties. It's not a glaring weakness, but, again, 98 wins.
The problem could be worsened somewhat given the departure of Michael Morse and the lack of a suitable platoon partner for Denard Span. (Tyler Moore can't play center, and Roger Bernadina also bats lefty.) Between them, the Braves and Phillies -- presumably the Nats' chief rivals in the East -- have a total of five left-handed starters, so that's an additional concern.
Harper takes the next step and finishes in the top five in the NL MVP balloting, Span gives them OBP at the top of the lineup, Gonzalez staves off regression (as does Ian Desmond), Ryan Zimmerman remains healthy, Strasburg notches 200-plus innings, and Haren posts a better-than-league-average ERA across a full season's worth of starts. It's a 100-win season and top overall seed in the NL.
Injuries diminish the rotation, Gonzalez's occasional control problems get the best of him all too often, Desmond's power numbers return to established norms, Adam LaRoche shows his age. All of that proves too much for the Nats, and they cede the NL East to the Braves and see the Cardinals and the NL West runner-up claim the wild-card berths.
Most likely scenario
Another NL East flag, 90 to 100 wins, a duel with Cincy for the best record in baseball and a deeper run into October.
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