The Nats Biggest Weakness

Turn on MLB Network or ESPN these days, cruise around the internet for baseball news, and when they talk about the NL East the expected order of finish is; Nationals, Braves, Phillies, Mets, and Marlins. Nearly every expert has that as the order of finish, and that is with the Braves having made the biggest off-season move of any team with the acquisition of Justin Upton. The reasons they give are that the Nats have a deeper roster and better starting pitching. As ESPN Baseball Tonight rallies to visit Nats camp this afternoon they question if the Nats roster has any weaknesses.  

The first weakness most would name is injury, but injuries are a weakness to every team. They are the great equalizer. Injuries strike without warning or malice. They don't care if a player is a projected Cy Young winner or the fifth starter of the Astros. Injuries will humble the greatest of men. The Nats do have players with injury history. Ryan Zimmerman has averaged 138 games played over the last seven seasons, and hasn't played over 150 since 2009. Jayson Werth is coming off of a catastrophic wrist injury and outside of 2009-2011 he has never had more than 395 plate appearances. Denard Span is finally expected to be healthy, but concussions can linger and who knows how he will do playing his first full season since 2010. Danny Espinosa has a torn rotator cuff and could need surgery with any type of wrong landing. Last but not least, of the position players, Wilson Ramos is coming off of a torn ACL which caused him to miss most of last season, and it is unknown how his body will respond to the rigors of catching. 

Then there is the pitching staff. The starting pitching staff isn't any more likely to get injured because they didn't last season, but it is worth noting that Strasburg, Zimmermann, and Detwiler have never pitched 200 innings in a season and Zimmermann is the only one of the three to have made it through a full season. Newly acquired Dan Haren is coming off of back and hip injuries, and while his velocity is up early in Spring, a body part once injured becomes prone to re-injury. The bullpen looks a little more stable, but that is where the Nationals suffered their biggest pitching injury last season when Drew Storen went down in Spring Training. Rafael Soriano was the Nats biggest signing of the off-season and the Nats are expecting him to anchor the back end of their bullpen, but he has missed time in two of the last six seasons.    

The only thing that is certain with injuries is that they do happen, and in some areas the Nats are uniquely qualified to handle them. In years past the Spring Training performances of Zach Walters, Anthony Rendon, and Corey Brown would be unreasonably exciting to Nats fans as those guys could be good pieces. Now, they are injury replacements. There is a chance, a good chance, that all of them could have a huge impact on the 2013 season. Think about it this way. If Danny Espinosa's shoulder does act up the Nats slide Steve Lombardozzi into the starting line-up and Zach Walters is called up to replace Lombardozzi. It is a drop off, but not nearly the drop most other teams would suffer. If Werth does end up back on the DL the Nats have Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Steve Lombardozzi, and Corey Brown ready to platoon and shuffle in and out of the line-up much as they did in 2012. If Ryan Zimmerman's shoulder isn't fully healed then Anthony Rendon could hit the majors sooner than expected.

The Nats depth is part of the reason they are expected to do well. The one place they lack depth is in the starting rotation, but with Strasburg, Gio, Zimmermann, Detwiler, and Haren the only need for depth is in case of emergency. Waiting to fill that spot are the uninspiring names of Yunesky Maya, Ross Ohlendorf, and Chris Young, and as none of them are on the 40 man roster they can only be injury replacements. A pitching injury still isn't the end of the world. If the Nats lose Detwiler or Haren then they find themselves searching for a fifth starter, a circumstance familiar to many contending clubs. As long as the injury happens before July 31 baseball has a mechanism that helps teams to improve mid-season, and if it is after the trade deadline then perhaps Nathan Karns or someone else will be ready for their debut. Now if the Nats suffer an injury to Strasburg, Gio, or Zimmermann they will recover as well as any other team that loses one of their top starters. Which is to say, they won't, and can't.    

Injuries are the Nats biggest weakness, but they are everyone's biggest weakness. Injuries are going to happen. They will happen to every team and they will strike without warning or malice. To pretend that luck has nothing to do with winning a championship is to miss the point. There isn't much difference in talent between the rosters of the Giants, Reds, Braves, and Nationals. Of those four contenders the team most likely to represent the NL in the World Series is whichever one is the healthiest, and that is something that cannot be measured or predicted. Injuries are the weakness of everyone, but maybe in the end the Nationals depth will save them.  

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