30 Days for 30 Teams: Washington Nationals

BY ZACK BECKER

2013 Record: 86-76 (2nd Place NL East, 10 GB)

After a 98-win 2012 ended with an early playoff exit, hype surrounded the team in our nation’s capital for the 2013 season. The innings limit for Stephen Strasburg? Gone. The potential for a rotation with at least three aces? Limitless. And what happened? A mediocre season.

Of course.

The Nats had a very quiet offseason, and head into 2014 hoping for better seasons out of their starting pitchers and more offensive production from a lineup that was around the middle of the pack in the NL last season.

Key Acquisitions

SP Doug Fister  (acquired in trade from Tigers)

Trading for Fister last December surprised a lot of people, but he’ll fit right in with the pitching-heavy mindset of this team. The Nats head into 2014 with a rotation that starts with Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann , Gio Gonzalez  and Fister. That’s scary good.

Key Losses

Dan Haren — The carousel of fifth-starters aside, Haren was by far the worst starter on the team last year, going 10-14. While the offense only putting up 3 runs per start for the veteran certainly didn’t help his cause, he didn’t pull his weight either with an ugly 4.67 ERA. He signed with the Dodgers this offseason, and with the acquisition of Fister, the Nats were more than happy to let him go.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Starting Pitching. In 2012, the combined ERA of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmerman and Fister was 3.09. In 2013, that number jumped to 3.33. If the Nats’ offense is just barely putting up four runs a game, they’re going to have to pitch a bit better than that.

Fister is dealing with some elbow tightness in Spring Training right now, and it’s safe to say that this potential injury could be the difference between a playoff spot and another postseason on the couch in Washington.

Strasburg, who’s entering his fifth season (wow, I feel old), needs to stay healthy, which he’s done quite well the past two seasons. If he can drop his ERA below 3.00 while increasing his innings for a third straight season, he should receive some Cy Young votes for the first time in his very-hyped career.

And lost in that hype is the team’s most consistent pitcher, Jordan Zimmerman. Since his 2010 Tommy John surgery, he’s pitched an average of 30 games a season with a great K/BB ratio and a respectable 3.12 ERA in last three seasons.

Gio has been a horse for this rotation since arriving in D.C., throwing close to 400 innings in two seasons while striking out more than one batter per inning pitched. His win total suffered in 2013, but chalk that stat up to his receiving a full run of support less than he did in 2012.

If these four guys find their A-game in 2014, it wont matter who their fifth starter is.

Projected Opening Day Lineupnationals opening day

This lineup is virtually the same as it was for a significant chunk of last year, with the only Opening Day 2013 to 2014 change being a switch from Danny Espinosa at second base to youngster Anthony Rendon, which the team made early on last season. Ramos, like Rendon, saw limited action last year, but they’re both gearing up for a full season in Washington.

Like I said, the strength of this team is pitching, through and through. You won’t see any 35-homer, 100 RBI guys on the lineup card — unless this year is Bryce Harpers breakout offensive season.

Their playoff chances hinge completely on the rotation. If they can get 65 wins out of their top four guns, they’ll be in the hunt for a wild card berth.

#Natitude out.

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