2014 MLB Season Preview: Why the Nationals Will Win the Pennant

USA TODAY Sports

With Opening Day just a weekend away, we look back at what went wrong in 2013 and look forward to 2014 and the reasons why the Washington Nationals will win the pennant in the National League as part of the SB Nation's 2014 MLB Preview.

SB Nation 2014 MLB Preview

What if Ryan Zimmerman's surgically-repaired shoulder causes him issues? What if Danny Espinosa's torn rotator cuff is more of a problem than he thinks it will be? What if Wilson Ramos isn't 100-percent recovered from the torn ACL and meniscus which ended his 2012 campaign? What if Denard Span doesn't produce as expected? What if the Washington Nationals' starters aren't able to stay healthy like they did in 2012? What if the lack of lefties in the bullpen becomes a real issue? Who knew that all of the things we wondered about in a post on the "Worst Case Scenario" for the Nats in 2013 would actually go wrong?

"We dug our own hole and we just couldn't dig out of it, so now we can make it miserable for somebody else." - Davey Johnson after loss to the Cardinals last night

There was so much hope at the start in 2013. It was Davey Johnson's last run, "World Series or Bust!" Coming off a 98-win 2012 season in which they took the NL East and brought postseason baseball back to the nation's capital for the first time since 1933, it was supposed to be the Nationals' year. Then Wilson Ramos got hurt. Bryce Harper hurt his knee, or based on what he's said since, made a preexisting issue even worse.

Ryan Zimmerman's throwing issues continued for much of the summer and his power only returned late in the season. Danny Espinosa, playing with the torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, was hit on the wrist and ended up getting sent to Triple-A.

After everything seemed to go Washington's way in 2012, they could neither catch a break nor catch up to the Braves. Davey Johnson finished out a disappointing campaign and retired, or was "put out to pasture," as he was fond of saying toward the end. Nats' GM Mike Rizzo chose Arizona D-Backs' coach Matt Williams as the next manager of the Nationals and then went about fixing what he saw as the big holes on the roster.

Rizzo acquired pitcher Doug Fister from the Tigers in return for infielder Steve Lombardozzi and 22-year-old lefties Ian Krol and Robbie Ray, then traded 2012 Nats' Minor League Player of the Year Billy Burns to the Oakland A's for left-handed reliever Jerry Blevins to shore up the pen. A two-year/$10.75M deal and a promise of significant at bats convinced Nate McLouth to sign on as a fourth outfielder in the nation's capital. Just in case Wilson Ramos can't stay healthy this season -- a not unreasonable assumption to make -- Rizzo acquired 29-year-old catcher Jose Lobaton from the Tampa Bay Rays, adding a stronger backup catcher than the Nats had available in-house.

"If we get in, I think we're the best team in baseball at the time and I think it was ours to lose." - Jayson Werth on missing postseason

The starting lineup was pretty much set from the start of the winter. The addition of Fister gives the Nationals a top four (Fister, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez) that can match up with any team in baseball and they have a strong group of pitchers behind the top four battling for the fifth rotation spot this Spring. Ross Detwiler was moved to the bullpen in spring training, opening a spot for Taylor Jordan or Tanner Roark. The back of the bullpen is strong with Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, and Rafael Soriano all capable of closing games. There are a host of hard-throwing righties fighting for the few available spots left in the 'pen and now Detwiler as well.

While the lefty was not thrilled with move to a relief role, it gives Washington the two left-handers in the bullpen they talked about wanting all winter. Plus, with a low-to-mid-90s sinking fastball, changeup, and curve that is a work-in-progress, Detwiler could end up being a legitimate weapon in a relief role.

Strasburg is expected to be healthy after having surgery to remove loose bodies from his right elbow. Harper is working his way back from offseason knee surgery and expects to be ready by Opening Day. Adam LaRoche had his elbow cleaned up and is looking to bounce back. Ryan Zimmerman looked more like himself toward the end of the 2013 campaign, as did Denard Span. Jayson Werth raked all season despite missing 33 games. They finished strong in 2012, with a 38-29 second half and an 18-9 month of September.

The Nationals are primed and ready for another run. As Werth noted in a conversation with reporters in January, however, the Nats were one of the best teams in baseball down the stretch, and as he saw it, had they earned a postseason berth, they could have gone far. "If we get in," he said, "I think we're the best team in baseball at the time and I think it was ours to lose."

In the end, Werth said, "We weren't that far off," and on paper they've only gotten better.

Did the high expectations get to the Nationals in 2013? Did they expect to win and forget there were games that had to be played? Did Davey Johnson's "World Series or Bust!" declaration put too much pressure on a relatively young team? Or was it just injuries, a bench that didn't produce as they had the previous season and disappointing performances from additions like Denard Span and Dan Haren and returning players like LaRoche and Espinosa?

Whatever the reason, the expectations for this season are just as high.

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