2013 Opponent Preview: The Washington Nationals are legitimate World Series contenders

USA TODAY Sports

The Nationals led the MLB in wins last season, but still aggressively pursued upgrades to their roster this offseason in hopes of being even better in 2013.

The Nationals were one out away from a trip to the NLCS last season, leading the St. Louis Cardinals 7-5 in Game 5 of the NLDS. Four batters later, the Cardinals led 9-7 and the Nats were too stunned to mount a comeback in the bottom half of the inning. With an offseason to stew over the heartbreaking loss, the Nationals went out and acquired a new centerfielder and closer in hopes of shoring up any problem areas for a run at a title in 2013.

Manager: Davey Johnson (3rd year)

2012 record: 98-64, 1st in NL East

SB Nation blog: Federal Baseball

First series vs. Tigers: May 7-8 @ Nationals Park

Lineup

I'm still trying to figure out how the Nationals were able to pry Denard Span away from the Twins for a pitching prospect who hasn't even hit Double-A yet. Span's career .357 on-base percentage is a massive upgrade over the .325 figure that the Nationals got from their leadoff hitters last season. Span's speed will also be an asset, giving the Nationals five players with legitimate 20-steal potential.

Speaking of 20-steal potential, Jayson Werth will hit out of the second spot in the lineup after putting up great numbers in the leadoff spot last year. His .349 on-base percentage in his two seasons with the Nationals will give Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman plenty of RBI chances. Manager Davey Johnson has hinted that Harper will bat third in order to split up lefties and righties in the lineup. Zimmerman bounced back nicely from a 2011 season in which he was hampered by an abdominal injury, hitting .282/.346/.478 last year.

Adam LaRoche will attempt to replicate his excellent 2012 numbers after signing a two-year contract extension during the offseason. If he can, it will be his third straight full season (he missed most of 2011) with 100 RBIs. Shortstop Ian Desmond will look to continue the run of success he had after being moved out of the leadoff spot last May.

After Desmond, the firepower starts to fizzle out. Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos will split the catching duties, but it's no secret that the Nationals view Ramos -- who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered last May -- as their future backstop.

It's hard to improve upon a 98 win season, but the Nationals made a couple of upgrades in Span and Soriano that should keep them on top of the NL East in 2013.

Second baseman Danny Espinosa played for a good portion of last season with a torn rotator cuff. Steve Lombardozzi showed a capable glove when called upon to spell any of the infielders. Top prospect Anthony Rendon was impressive during a short stint at second base during Spring Training. The future will have to wait, though, as Rendon was optioned to minor league camp last week.

Rotation

The Nationals have received a lot of flak -- and deservedly so, in my opinion -- for shutting down Stephen Strasburg last September, a move that probably cost them a trip to the NLCS. The kid gloves are off this year. Strasburg will be looking to build upon last year's 15-6 record, and if last night's results are any indication, he's up for the challenge.

Gio Gonzalez finished third in the NL Cy Young voting last year after a 21-8 season with a 2.89 ERA/2.82 FIP/3.38 xFIP. He spent the early portion of his Spring Training with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, winning his only start with five shutout innings against Puerto Rico. If Gonzalez can keep his walk rate down, he should have another good year in 2013.

Jordan Zimmermann went through a "dead arm" period a couple of weeks ago, but looked impressive in his start on Wednesday, hitting 93-94 mph on the radar gun. He was the victim of lousy run support at times last season, only winning 12 games despite a 2.94 ERA.

Dan Haren will take Edwin Jackson's place in the rotation after the former Tiger signed a four-year contract with the Chicago Cubs this offseason. Haren was mediocre at best during an injury-riddled 2012 season. His 4.33 ERA was the highest full-season figure of his career. If he regains his pre-2012 form, the $13 million that the Nationals are paying him this season will be a steal.

Ross Detwiler earned himself a full-time starting gig after winning 10 games with a 3.40 ERA last season. He was spectacular in his lone playoff start, allowing one unearned run in six innings in Game 4 of the NLDS. He joined Gonzalez on Team USA during the World Baseball Classic, allowing just one hit in four innings of work out of the bullpen.

The Nationals had one of the best bullpens in baseball last season, but lost lefties Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez in free agency this offseason. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard split closing duties last season, but both will work as setup men for newcomer Rafael Soriano. Right-handers Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus were both excellent last season in middle relief.

Spring Training storylines

Other than minor tweaks to swings or battles for the final spots in the bullpen, there hasn't been much gossip around Nationals camp this year. Drew Storen allowed three runs in an inning last night against the Houston Astros, but has otherwise looked fine after ending his 2012 season with the aforementioned 9th inning meltdown against the Cardinals. Anthony Rendon made some noise with four home runs and 11 RBI in 13 games, but still wasn't able to make the 25 man roster.

Player to watch: Ian Desmond

Desmond broke out in a big way in 2012, hitting .292/.335/.511 with 25 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 130 games. A notorious first-pitch hacker, Desmond started the year hitting out of the leadoff spot. Through 38 games, Desmond was getting on base at a .294 clip. Manager Davey Johnson decided to move him down in the order, and the results were positively Pedroia-esque. Desmond finished the year hitting .303/.354/.541 out of the middle of the order. If Desmond can continue to put up a near-.900 OPS out of the 6th slot in the lineup, this team is going to be scary good.

Outlook

It's hard to improve upon a 98 win season, but the Nationals made a couple of upgrades in Span and Soriano that should keep them on top of the NL East in 2013. There are a few regression candidates -- namely LaRoche and a couple of guys in the bullpen -- and their pitching depth is a bit of a concern. However, there is simply too much talent on this roster to label them a one-year wonder. Expect to see them in the postseason again in 2013.

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