2012 in review
Record: 98-64 (96-66 Pythagorean)
731 runs scored (5th in NL)
594 runs allowed (2nd in NL)
Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agents Rafael Soriano and Denard Span. Re-signed free agent Adam LaRoche. Traded Alex Meyer to the Twins for Span. In a three-team deal, traded Mike Morse and acquired A.J. Cole and Blake Treinen. Lost Edwin Jackson, John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny. Announced William Howard Taft will be joining the presidents' race.
I liked the Nationals' offseason. First, they traded for Span, giving up Meyer, the team's No. 1 pick in 2011 (and No. 61 on Keith Law's top 100). While it unnecessarily moves Bryce Harper out of center field (despite some bad routes, he was very good there), it gives the Nationals two outstanding defensive outfielders and Jayson Werth, who may have lost a step but has a strong arm. Span is a decent leadoff guy and comes with a reasonable contract. With Span and Tyler Moore, Morse became an unnecessary luxury, so GM Mike Rizzo flipped him for a couple of pitching prospects. They overpaid for Soriano, but he does make the team better.
Five reasons the Nationals will score more runs:
1. Harper will be better. Possibly much better. Potentially very much better.
2. Ryan Zimmerman will improve on his .282/.346/.478 line. The back and shoulder will always be concerns, but he hit .319/.381/.564 in the second half.
3. I believe in Ian Desmond. Maybe he won't slug .511 again, but he can come close to that.
4. The return of Wilson Ramos. Nationals catchers posted a .659 OPS. Ramos had a .779 OPS as a rookie in 2011 before missing most of last season with a knee injury, so even if he shares time with Kurt Suzuki, the Nats should see improved offense.
5. A healthy Werth. After breaking his wrist, Werth returned and hit .300, but without much power.
Washington's starters allowed the lowest batting average (.240), lowest OBP (.302, tied with the Phillies) and lowest slugging percentage (.375) and had the second-best strikeout percentage (behind the Brewers) in the National League. There isn't much room for improvement, but it's possible. Stephen Strasburg will pitch more innings, and Dan Haren, coming off a bad season with the Angels, could be a slight upgrade over Edwin Jackson. There isn't an obvious No. 6 (Zach Duke?) if one of those guys go down, so that's the one concern with this group.
The bullpen should have as good a back three as any team in the league with Soriano, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. Add in other quality arms like Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus, Christian Garcia and Henry Rodriguez and skipper Davey Johnson has the depth to make sure Clippard doesn't wear down at the end of the season like the past two years. He can also once again hold down the innings of his starters -- no Nationals pitcher hit 200 innings a year ago -- if desired.
Heat Map to Watch
As Jeff Sullivan wrote recently, Harper received a steady diet of breaking balls in his rookie season. On one level it worked: Harper hit .257/.302/.464 in plate appearances ending in "soft stuff" (see heat map) and .271/.385/.484 against fastballs. The power was similar, but the pitch recognition and contact abilities were not. Harper swung and missed on 19 percent of the fastballs he saw and 32 percent of the soft stuff. So feed him more breaking balls this year? Maybe. But don't forget that Harper hit 13 of his 22 home runs after Aug. 4. The kid was already making adjustments.
On paper, this is the best team in baseball. No surprise there. They won the most games and had the highest run differential in the majors a year ago, and there are reasons to expect them to be even better this year.
I see a team with no weaknesses unless a couple of the starting pitchers go down, but that's something you can say for every team. They have the deepest 25-man roster in the league, a guy who could be the best pitcher in the league in Strasburg, another guy coming off a 20-win season in Gio Gonzalez, a young starter who would be an ace on other teams in Jordan Zimmermann, a 20-year-old phenom who could go 30/30 and power throughout the lineup. I think they'll win 100 games. They'll be my pick -- and that of many others -- to win the World Series.