We're less than two weeks away from the four greatest words in the English language: "Pitchers and catchers report." The beginning of spring is so close, teasing those of us who live in DC this week with a pair of 65-degree days. I think because of its start time that no sport fully embodies hope in the way that baseball does. The beginning of spring training comes after the Super Bowl, when the only major sporting options are the mid-season doldrums of the NBA and NHL, and conference slates in college basketball. By this point most of the good teams in those sports have separated themselves from the pack (although hockey is different this year), so February can be a melancholy month for most, until the arrival of baseball in Florida and Arizona.
Anything will be possible during these heady days of early February. The Royals' young talent might finally coalesce and bring forth a winning season. The Pirates may be steeled by consecutive mid-summer collapses and gain ground in the NL Central. The Mets' young pitching stars might make them a surprisingly competitive team, even if a 50-year-old Darryl Strawberry would probably be their best outfielder right now. The Blue Jays' big acquisitions might give them the oomph needed to break through in the AL East and reach the postseason for the first time since 1993. Player X could bounce back from injury (Ryan Madson, Grady Sizemore, Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, etc.). Rookie Y might provide a serious spark (Jurickson Profar, Dylan Bundy, Shelby Miller, Wil Myers, etc.). The point is, there is reason for hope everywhere except South Florida, and even there the few Marlins fans not driven away by the latest fire sale can at least hope that Giancarlo Stanton cranks fifty home runs and pushes his trade value beyond the stratosphere (because, let's face it, he ain't staying in Miami any longer than he has to).
Nationals fans are hoping for something more than that. After an MLB-best 98 wins and a Divissional Series loss at home to the Cardinals, the thinking around here is "World Series or bust," from both the team and its fans. And why not? This is a team that seems to have everything. They're young, with only four key players (Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Haren, and Rafael Soriano) older than 29. They've proven that they can play at a high level already. They have probably the deepest 1-5 rotation in the game, and have not one, not two, but THREE closers in the bullpen. Their bench offers versatility, power, defense, speed, and fielding. And they are led by the best manager in the game, a 70-year-old man known for getting the most out of his teams, a man who has finished below .500 in a full season exactly once, in 1999 with the Dodgers.
So where are the weaknesses? Well, for one, the pitching staff was improbably healthy last year, with only Drew Storen spending any significant time on the disabled list. There is no proven LOOGY in the bullpen, although most of the relievers are adept at getting out hitters from both sides of the plate. Cy Young finalist Gio Gonzalez' status may be in flux after he was named in a report from a Miami clinic that provided PEDs to some players (Gonzalez has denied any involvement with PEDs, and the supplements he purchased from the clinic are not on the banned list). And there are questions about the health of catcher Wilson Ramos (torn ACL) and second baseman Danny Espinosa (torn labrum). But those questions look minor in comparison to all of the good things that this team has going for it.
Why don't we take a look at the players? Here's an optimal lineup and rotation, with Bill James' 2013 projections, along with Fangraphs' projections for WAR:
CF Denard Span (L): .281/.350/.379, 5 HR, 19 SB, 3.6 WAR
RF Jayson Werth (R): .267/.367/.440, 18 HR, 14 SB, 3.4 WAR
LF Bryce Harper (L): .272/.347/.476, 24 HR, 20 SB, 6.1 WAR
3B Ryan Zimmerman (R): .287/.359/.486, 25 HR, 4.9 WAR
1B Adam LaRoche (L): .256/.334/.471, 26 HR, 3.1 WAR
SS Ian Desmond (R): .279/.326/.445, 18 HR, 22 SB, 3.9 WAR
2B Danny Espinosa (S): .253/.327/.434, 21 HR, 19 SB, 3.8 WAR
C Wilson Ramos (R): .269/.324/.426, 13 HR, 2.8 WAR
A couple of points. Those projections for Ramos seem hopelessly optimistic, given that asking a guy to catch 120 games when he won't be back from that ACL tear until mid-May at the earliest is a major stretch. He will be splitting time with Kurt Suzuki (.247/.306/.360, 8 HR, 1.6 WAR). The projections for Zimmerman and Harper, meanwhile, look pretty modest. Zimmerman hit 25 home runs last year while dealing with a nagging shoulder injury all season. With full health, 30 bombs are not out of the question, and perhaps even a return to his .292/.364/.525 season of 2009, which it should be noted was for a terrible last-place team. Seeing as how he will be playing his age-28 season in 2013, and already has a pair of 7+-WAR campaigns ('09 and '10), that is still a definite possibility.
Harper, meanwhile, is tough to project because he has very few comps as teenager who excelled in the majors for an entire season. Do you know who his top three age-comparable players on Baseball-Reference since 1900 are? If you guessed Mel Ott, Al Kaline, and Ty Cobb, you win! No, seriously. But I'm thinking that you didn't guess that. How do Harper's projections compare to not only the age-20 seasons of the three Hall of Famers, but to those of other reasonable comps such as Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Conigliaro and Mike Trout?
Ott (#1 comp): .328/.449/.635, 42 HR, 8.9 WAR
Kaline (#2): .340/.421/.546, 27 HR, 7.7 WAR
Cobb (#3): .350/.380/.468, 5 HR, 53 SB, 7.4 WAR
Griffey: .300/.366/.481, 22 HR, 16 SB, 5.3 WAR
Conigliaro: .269/.338/.512, 32 HR, 4.0 WAR
Trout: .326/.399/.564, 30 HR, 49 SB, 10.0 WAR
If Harper shows the same development that his preternaturally gifted forbears did between 19 and 20, and given his skill set, I would expect something more along the lines of .295/.370/.540, with a 30-30 season in easy reach. His monstrous power (he led the National League in average home run distance AS A TEENAGER at 414 feet per shot), combined with the better pitch recognition he displayed in September 2012 and a likely peace of mind having proven himself, arguably make him a candidate to approach 40 bombs, although unlike Ott he doesn't have the 257-foot porch of the Polo Grounds in his sights. I think it's fairly safe to say that Harper will outperform projections. Now, how about that starting rotation?
RHP Stephen Strasburg: 208.0 IP, 255 K, 57 BB, 2.68 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 5.6 WAR
LHP Gio Gonzalez: 202.0 IP, 204 K, 83 BB, 3.21 ERA, 3.43 FIP, 4.4 WAR
RHP Jordan Zimmermann: 190.0 IP, 157 K, 41 BB, 3.32 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 4.2 WAR
RHP Dan Haren: 218.0 IP, 186 K, 41 BB, 3.47 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 3.1 WAR
LHP Ross Detwiler: 183.0 IP, 124 K, 61 BB, 3.98 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 2.0 WAR
These seem more accurate, although I would argue that Jordan Zimmermann is perhaps the most underrated starter in baseball; on virtually every other staff he would be the #1 or #2 guy, but for the Nats he's #3. I would suspect that you could probably flip Strasburg's and Zimmermann's innings totals, and I expect all of the top three to garner some serious Cy Young consideration. And of course, everyone is excited to see the gloves come off of Strasburg, who should make a case as the best righty starter in the NL and perhaps make the leap into Kershaw-Verlander territory as one of the premier pitchers in the game.
If you take the Fangraphs projections at face value, the thirteen primary starters for the Nationals (eight position players and five pitchers) will provide about fifty wins above replacement, give or take a little depending on who winds up getting most of the duty behind the plate. That's before getting into the bullpen (one of the best in the league) or the bench (probably THE best in the league and maybe in baseball). It's entirely possible that this Nationals team could be as great as the 1986 Mets team that Johnson managed to 108 wins and the World Series title.