The Nationals Reign is Only Just Beginning [FanIQ NL East Preview]
What about this year? How will the Nationals responed with expectations for the first time? Can the Uptons lead Atlanta back to the playoffs? Do the Phillies have another run in them?
Once again note that teams are listed in predicted order of finish, and that all projected Opening Day lineups are from MLBDepthCharts.com. Bold indicates new acquisition. Italics indicate rookie.
CF Denard Span
RF Jayson Werth
LF Bryce Harper
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche
SS Ian Desmond
2B Danny Espinosa
C Kurt Suzuki
RHP Stephen Strasburg
LHP Gio Gonzalez
RHP Jordan Zimmermann
RHP Dan Haren
LHP Ross Detwiler
Closer: RHP Rafael Soriano
Key Losses: OF/1B Michael Morse, SP Edwin Jackson, SP John Lannan, RP Michael Gonzalez, RP Tom Gorzelanny, RP Sean Burnett, C Jesus Flores
Natitude was out in full force in DC, at least until Drew Storen forgot how to throw strikes in the 9th inning of Game 5 of the NLDS. Last year’s league leader in wins only got better in the winter, addressing what weaknesses they did have. Need a center fielder and lead-off man? Hello Denard Span. Need a veteran starting pitcher on a 1 year deal to replace Edwin Jackson? Welcome aboard Dan Haren. See an opportunity to pick up another top bullpen arm? Sign right here Rafael Soriano.
Washington’s strength is their pitching, but they were also an above average offensive team last year. Span’s career .357 OBP will work fine at the top of the order if he can stay healthy, which admittedly is not a sure thing. If Span doesn’t work at leadoff though, Werth and his team leading OBP will slot in just fine. Those two lead into a very fine heart of the order. Zimmerman is one of the best in the game at third base, LaRoche had a breakout year in 2012 and was rewarded with a new contract, and Desmond slugged .511 last year as a shortstop, which doesn’t happen much anymore. Then we come to one Bryce Harper. His .270/.340/.477 line as a 19 year old was beyond impressive, and his ability to make adjustments was incredible for his age. He will be a 30 homer guy, if not more, sooner or later. It might not be this year per se, but in 2013 he should very good once again. They even have as good a bench as anyone in the league, as guys like OF Tyler Moore, IF Steve Lombardozzi, and C Wilson Ramos can pick up some slack if need be. Ramos in fact hopes to end the year as starting catcher as he recovers from a torn ACL.
The Strasburg Shutdown controversy is over for now, and Strasburg is expected to pitch the entire year, which can only be bad news for opposing hitters. Baseball will finally get to see everything he can do. Flanked by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, those three make up arguably the best 1-2-3 pitching staff in baseball right now. Dan Haren joins the team coming off the worst season of his career. Thanks to those in front of him, he doesn’t have to be as good as his prime, just healthy enough for 180-190 innings of solid work. In Ross Detwiler, the Nationals have one of the better fifth starters to boot. The main issue is that last season the Nationals didn’t need a sixth starter until Strasburg was shut down. That kind of durability is very unlikely to happen again, and with John Lannan gone to Philly, the Nationals don’t really have any depth outside of the primary five anymore.
Other than that and a lack of lefties in the bullpen though, this is a team with no real weaknesses. It doesn’t matter much right now, but this is the best team on paper going into the season, and they should be in the mix to get back to the playoffs and beyond.
Projected Record: 95-67
Down on the Farm: Not surprising, graduations and trades have thinned this system out considerably. The top prospect now is 3B Anthony Rendon, who has a plus hit tools but has issues staying healthy, particularly with his ankles. The latter is a big problem if he has to move to second because of Zimmerman. OF Brian Goodwin shows great speed and a decent bat, but still needs to work on pitch recognition. On the pitching side, SP Lucas Giolito has all kinds of potential coming out of high school last year, but injury concerns dropped him to 16th overall in the 2012 draft, concerns found after he needed Tommy John surgery after just 2 pro innings. If he recovers as normal, he’ll be one to watch.
SS Andrelton Simmons
RF Jason Heyward
LF Justin Upton
1B Freddie Freeman
CF B.J. Upton
2B Dan Uggla
3B Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson
C Gerald Laird
RHP Tim Hudson
RHP Kris Medlen
LHP Mike Minor
LHP Paul Maholm
RHP Julio Teheran
Closer: RHP Craig Kimbrel
Key Losses: 3B Chipper Jones, OF/3B Martin Prado, OF Michael Bourn, SP Tommy Hanson, C David Ross, SP Jair Jurrjens, SP Randall Delgado, RP Peter Moylan
I’m not going to lie. I had forgotten the Braves had won 94 games last year. For me, their year basically boils down to Chipper Jones’s last hurrah and their fans throwing garbage after the awful infield fly call. Atlanta’s primary means of upgrading were a double dose of Upton. B.J. was signed to replace Michael Bourn in center field, while Justin was acquired after sending Martin Prado and some prospects to Arizona. The brothers plus Jason Heyward (who is still just 23 and is excellent with still untapped potential) form one of baseball’s most exciting young outfields. Add Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons, who has a truly special glove at short and showed surprising hit ability as a rookie, and the Braves have a nice young hitting core. However, both Uptons do come with risks. B.J. is a low OBP, high power guy whose OBP dropped to .298 last season. Justin, meanwhile, has been inconsistent from year to year and is coming off a thumb injury that hurt him last year. The rest of the lineup is also an issue. Dan Uggla continues to disappoint compared to his contract. Brian McCann was racked by injuries last year, won’t be ready for Opening Day, and might not be himself anymore. Finally, at third base replacing Chipper is the Francisco/Johnson platoon, which will be a pale imitation. This was a slightly above average lineup last season, and it will be so again.
Turing to the rotation, Tim Hudson is the nominal ace, but if Kris Medlen is anything like he was last season as a starter, that will change quickly. Medlen was unhittable once he hit the rotation, which won’t happen again, but a full season of Medlen starting should be enough to anchor it. Hudson keeps ticking along, while Minor and Maholm are both solid innings eating lefties. Teheran is the X-factor here. A former top prospect, Teheran hasn’t been able to put it together in AAA, much less in his short big league trials. For now, he just needs to hold down the fort while Brandon Beachy rehabs from Tommy John surgery. If these guys and the rest of the bullpen can get Atlanta a lead, Craig Kimbrel will lock down the win. Kimbrel last year was the first guy to ever strike out more than half the batters he faced. He is the best reliever in the game today.
Once again, the Braves should be in the thick of the playoff and division race. I think the Nationals are slightly better, but if they falter, Atlanta should be ready to pounce.
Projected Record: 90-72
Down on the Farm: Despite his issues, Teheran still grades out at the Braves top prospect. Another pitcher, J.R. Graham, is the next most talked about guy, with a fantastic fastball and the ability to induce groundballs.