Some teams thrive under expectations of winning a World Series, while other can wilt with that pressure. That 2013 Washington Nationals fell into that latter category.
The Nationals led the major league with 98 wins in 2012 and were World Series favorites entering the postseason, the franchise's first trip to the playoffs since the Montreal Expos lost in the 1981 NLCS. Washington suffered one of the biggest collapses in a postseason game ever in losing Game 5 of the '12 NLDS against St. Louis. It was up 6-0 through three innings at home and 7-3 entering the ninth but lost 9-7. It was the largest comeback in a winner-take-all playoff game in big-league history. With essentially the entire cast of characters back last season and the addition of outfielder Denard Span, nothing short of a trip to the Fall Classic was expected. Alas, the Nats didn't play to expectations until the final month of the season, when they were 18-9. It was too little, too late. The Nats finished 86-66 and missed the playoffs.
LHP Fernando Abad, RHP Dan Haren, Manager Davey Johnson, LHP Ian Krol, IF Steve Lombardozzi, IF Chad Tracy
LHP Jerry Blevins, IF Jamey Carroll, RHP Doug Fister, OF Nate McLouth, C Jose Lobaton, Manager Matt Williams
The team was largely quiet this offseason. Johnson retired and moved into the front office in a move that was planned before the 2013 campaign began. The team surprised many by hiring Williams, who has no big-league managerial experience. The former five-time All-Star third baseman became the first player mentioned in the Mitchell Report to become a manager in the majors. Williams had spent the previous three seasons as the third-base coach for the Diamondbacks. The other big move was a trade for Fister, a deal that was lauded by many experts as a steal for Washington. Fister was 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA in 33 games with Detroit in 2013 and allowed just 0.6 home runs per nine innings, second best in the AL. He ranked ninth in the majors among pitchers in wins above replacement the past three seasons. All the Nats had to give up were utility infielder Lombardozzi, left-hander Krol and minor league lefty Robbie Ray. Nothing that would hurt the team in 2014. Now Washington could have the best rotation in the National League with Stephen Strasburg (8-9, 3.00 ERA), Jordan Zimmermann (19-9, 3.25), Gio Gonzalez (11-8, 3.36) and Fister. The fifth starter's role is up for grabs in camp. Closer Rafael Soriano is back after saving 43 games last year and he has two good set-up men in Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. Blevins will be a situational lefty in the bullpen.
The lineup will look the same, with the only position battle expected to be between Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon at second base. The former was limited to 44 big-league games last season and slumped in a big way with a .158 average. Rendon hit .265 with seven homers in 98 games as a rookie. Washington ranked sixth in the NL in runs and third in homers and those numbers should improve as long as Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth stay healthy. Harper was bothered by his left knee much of last season after crashing twice into outfield walls. That led to offseason surgery. He hit .274 with 20 homers in 118 games. Werth was limited to 129 games but played like an MVP candidate, hitting a team-high .318 with 25 homers and 82 knocked in. This offense could really be dynamic if first baseman Adam LaRoche hits like he did in 2012 (.271, 33 HRs, 100 RBIs) than '13 (.237, 20 HRs, 62 RBIs).
The Nationals are even money on baseball odds to win the NL East, +500 to win the NL pennant and +1000 to win the World Series. They are given a wins total of 90.5 at sportsbooks (both -110). Harper is +2500 to lead the major leagues in home runs. Zimmerman is +10000.
The front four of the rotation all pitch to their capabilities, the key players in the lineup stay healthy and the Nats beat out the Braves for the NL East title and earn the top seed in the NL playoffs.
Injuries hit. Guys like Strasburg, Harper and Zimmerman haven't always proven they can stay healthy. Harper needs to tone down his go-for-broke style. It's also not easy for a rookie manager to step right into a contending team as Williams will be doing.
MLB Free Pick: Washington over the 90.5 wins and the Nats win the NL East title but lose in the NLCS to the Dodgers.