Now that we have put the Stephen Strasburg fiasco behind us and he most likely will be treated like a real live pitcher rather than a porcelain doll, the Washington Nationals seem as solid top-to-bottom as any team in baseball. They should capture the National League East Division title and then fight it out in the playoffs with a strong chance of advancing to the World Series.
The last time the city of Washington, D.C. had a World Series winner (including a couple of versions of the Senators) Walter Johnson was on the team in 1924. To hear people talk Strasburg is the second coming of Walter Johnson, but after the team’s mollycoddling last season, shutting him down before the regular season ended, an act that help nip the Nationals’ own playoff run, I expect him to be superb.
Washington has the pitching (Gio Gonzalez won 21 games, though his name did come up in the paperwork of the Biogenesis Clinic files) and has rookie of the year Bryce Harper in the outfield, among other weapons. At this time last year many thought the Nationals might have a breakout year to push them above .500. Well, the Nationals zoomed all of the way to the top of the standings with 98 wins. Health permitting, the Nationals should be better this year.
The Nationals do not seem to have any holes in their lineup and are so wealthy in talent that they have two closers in Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. Many of the players are young, too, and may be primed to post their best seasons. Washington definitely looks as good or better than any team in either league.
Still, it’s the Atlanta Braves‘ job to chase down the Nationals. They won’t do it in the regular season. Atlanta is not nearly as well-equipped to win as many regular-season games as Washington. The Braves are good, but not as good as the Nationals in most categories. The biggest void will be replacing future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones in the field and in the clubhouse. There’s no easy fix for that.
Two Braves players who will be intriguing to watch are starting pitcher Kris Medlen and closer Craig Kimbrel. At times they were each the hottest thrower in the National League in 2012, which for different reasons had them bordering on the unbelievable.
After scuffling for a few years Medlen began the season in the bullpen. But when he was shifted into the starting rotation in the latter stages of the season, all of a sudden he was Greg Maddux II. Medlen finished 10-1 with a 1.57 earned run average. The way he is talked about going into this season the Braves make it sound as if they expect 20-2 this time around.
Meanwhile, out in the bullpen Kimbrel was doing the same thing that Aroldis Chapman was doing in Cincinnati, though seemingly with less fanfare. In 2011, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound righty was the NL rookie of the year when he set a rookie record of saving 46 games. Last year, on his way to a second straight All-Star selection, Kimbrel saved 42 games. He also became the first pitcher in history to strike out more than 50 percent of the batters he faced. You used to hear the phrase about a handcuffed team at the plate that it couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield. Against Kimbrel teams can’t even get their bats on the ball.
It was not so long ago that the team of consequence in this division was the Philadelphia Phillies. Riding high one minute, falling apart the next, though, pretty well defined the Phils. They reached the playoffs four straight years, were a World Series favorite in 2012 after winning 102 games in 2011, but won just 81 games in 2013. Ryan Howard‘s Achilles heel was definitely the Phillies’ Achilles heel as well.
The disastrous year provoked the Phils into making some personnel changes, but no one is talking about Philadelphia possessing the greatest pitching rotation of all time the way they were two years ago. The Phillies are solid, though, and very dangerous in a short series as long as Roy Halladay stays well. He had some worrisome outings in spring training.
New York’s Metropolitans are also in this division and it figures to be a long summer at CitiField. There should be a few bright spots, starting with David Wright, once he glues his body back together after the World Baseball Classic. Which should be enough to put the Mets ahead of the Marlins, who will have a shortage of pitching, a shortage of hitting, a shortage of wins, and a shortage of bright spots.