Founded on the ashes of the Montreal Expos, the Washington Nationals had been an afterthought almost from the moment they moved across the border. Times have changed: they now have the Next Great Pitcher (Stephen Strasburg) and the Next Great Hitter (Bryce Harper) in their fold, and things are looking up.
The Action: General manager Mike Rizzo did not sit back and count his blessings. The outspoken executive sent three pitchers and a catcher to Oakland for lefthanded fireballer Gio Gonzalez (they also received righthander Robert Gilliam in the deal), and Rizzo was said to be one of the many suitors pursuing 1B Prince Fielder.
Most of the notable free-agent signings happened on the pitching side as well: starters Edwin Jackson and Chien-Ming Wang (who rolled his ankle while covering first base during the Yankees game Thursday), and reliever Brad Lidge. Utility infielder Mark DeRosa should prove handy for this young club.
It’s A Lock: Strasburg got rocked in his most recent spring start on Wednesday, giving up five hits, four runs and two homers in four innings, but there doesn’t seem to be any panic in the Nationals’ camp. He started five games last September after returning early from Tommy John surgery on his shoulder and appears ready to go, as are Gonzalez, Jackson, Jordan Zimmermann, Jon Lannan (who is the target of trade rumors) and Ross Detwiler in a surprisingly deep rotation.
Drew Storen showed last season that he’s a capable closer, and should get plenty of chances in 2012. The bullpen (which ranked fifth in ERA in the majors last season) looks really good once again, with the likes of Lidge, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Tom Gorzelanny.
In the field, 3B Ryan Zimmerman was recently re-signed to a six-year contract extension worth an estimated $100 million. Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond will be counted on to be a solid keystone combination at second base and shortstop, while Wilson Ramos should be a steadying influence at catcher. Michael Morse and Jayson Werth are the big-hitting incumbents in left and right field, respectively.
Hedge Your Bets: There has been much talk about the 19-year-old Harper winning a spot on the Nationals’ roster out of spring training despite a calf problem, and manager Davey Johnson gave him a few at-bats and started him in center field on Wednesday. That’s more a reflection of the dearth of options at the position — often-injured Rick Ankiel and light-hitting Roger Bernadina are slated to for that slot — than it is of Harper’s natural fit there.
On Thursday against the Yankees, Harper started in right field and batted seventh in the lineup. For now, he is likely ticketed to play for the Syracuse Chiefs, but will be back at some point this season. There’s also a competition at first base, where Adam Laroche, Morse and DeRosa could all see action.
The Payoff: On paper, this team should open some eyes this season. They’re ranked fairly high in the MLB futures betting; while they might not have enough to overcome the Phillies for the division title yet, it shouldn’t be long before they are considered contenders in their own right.