Hello there, Nationals fans! It’s finally that time of year again – time for Major League Baseball players to brush the dust off their bats, rub some oil on their gloves, and grab a new bucket of shiny white baseballs. Spring Training starts this week, and the Washington Nationals have a lot to look forward to.
After a heartbreaking loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series last year, the Nationals had a busy off-season, wheeling and dealing for players to strengthen their already hefty roster. Here is a list of what went down for the Nationals during baseball’s “Hot Stove” season:
· Washington's General Manager, Mike Rizzo, made a trade to acquire center fielder Denard Span from the Minnesota Twins in exchange for right-handed prospect Alex Meyer. Last season, Span batted .283 in 128 games with an on-base percentage of .342 and 17 stolen bases. The Nationals have had a problem getting a consistent performance from anyone batting leadoff, so hopefully Span will fill that gap. This will move NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper to left field, which should not be a problem for Bryce.
· But wait! Doesn’t Michael Morse (“The Beast”) play center field too? Yes, but Morse was traded to the Seattle Mariners (his former team before joining the Nationals). He was part of a three-team deal that sent catcher John Jaso to the Oakland A’s, and then the A’s returned right-hander A.J. Cole back to the Nationals after the Nats had sent him to Oakland in the 2011 Gio Gonzalez trade. Did you get all that?
· Oh, and hey, the Nationals were able to re-sign Gold Glove first baseman Adam LaRoche to a two-year deal! Let’s hope the off-season gave him time to develop a personality.
· Regarding the strongest starting rotation in the National League, the Nationals still have it. Despite losing Edwin Jackson to free agency, the Nationals acquired Dan Haren from the Angels. Despite his 12-13 record and 4.33 ERA last season, the Nationals hope that Haren’s return to the National League will be the right fit for the rightie.
· In the bullpen, the Nationals added free agent Rafael Soriano, who became the Yankees’ closer when Mariano Rivera injured his knee last season. With bionic Mariano back in pitching shape, Soriano is happy to be given a chance to continue pitching regularly.
At Nationals Park, fans will once again be able to witness "The Racing Presidents," where big-headed mascots of our Mount Rushmore presidents race around the outfield between the top and bottom of the fourth inning. But this year, Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln will be joined by William H. Taft. Why Taft? Because that's who fans voted for, and because he's fat and has the potential of being comical. I thought Nixon would have been funnier, or perhaps even Benjamin Franklin with his bifocals and lightning rod (even though he wasn't a President). But I didn't cast my vote, so I can't complain.
So as you can see, the Nationals look even better than they did last season. With their “World Series or bust!” attitude, they certainly seem ready to take on the world this year. But there are still a few lingering questions that keep us fans from getting TOO excited:
1. What’s up with Gio Gonzalez? Yes, he’s pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic next month, but during the off-season, Gio was implicated in a scandal involving a now-defunct anti-doping clinic which allegedly provided performance-enhancing drugs to a small number of players. Theoretically, Gio could be suspended by Major League Baseball if an investigation finds concrete evidence that he bought or used banned substances. Nothing has been proven yet, so at this point it’s a waiting game.
2. In the bullpen, who will be the true closer? Rizzo says that Soriano and Drew Storen (last year’s closer) can share the job, but there’s also Tyler Clippard to consider. Previously Storen’s set-up man, will Clippard’s role change? Will the dynamics in the bullpen be different? The guys seemed pretty tight last year; will Soriano try to fit in, or will he just do what he’s being paid to do and keep to himself? I guess as long as they can dominate, they don’t all have to be best buddies.
3. What’s up with Danny Espinosa’s left shoulder? Apparently “Espi” played the final part of the 2012 season with a torn rotator cuff but did not tell anyone. He also said that he would try to play this season without having surgery to reattach the almost-torn-off-the-bone ligaments. Can he continue his stellar defensive performance at second base with a messed-up shoulder? Can he cut down on his strikeouts and improve his on-base percentage with an injury that will clearly affect his swing? He should talk to teammate Ryan Zimmerman, whose performance was obviously affected by a shoulder injury last year that only got better when he got cortisone shots. And I’m no doctor, but aren’t cortisone shots more for pain relief? They don’t make ligaments reattach themselves to bones, do they?
So the Nationals promise to give us an interesting season this year. If the starting pitchers can stay healthy, the batters can consistently drive in more runs and stop leaving so many runners on base, and the bullpen can avoid drama, it should be another successful season. Last year I predicted a 81-81 season and I was pleasantly proven wrong (they ended at 98-65). This year, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they’ll once again have the best record in baseball, but this time it will be followed with a trip to the World Series. Let’s hope this time I’m right!