The Washington Nationals and the Land of Expectations
It still feels weird. The Nationals were the best team in the majors last season winning 98 games, the NL East, and leading baseball with a +137 run differential. Now as we enter 2013 the Nats are expected to be good again. ESPN's Buster Olney ranks them as the second best team with the second best rotation, the fifth best line-up, the eighth best infield, and the second best outfield. For long time Nats fans this is a disorienting feeling. It wasn't that long ago that Buster Olney mocked the Nats and predicted they would struggle to win 20 games.
The Nats have come a long way since then, and most view 2012 as only the beginning. The Nats are a young team with a great rotation, and enough top talent in the minors to contend for a long time. Think about how the Nats have gone about this off-season. Instead of signing Michael Bourn to a long term deal they traded for Denard Span because he is only under contract for two more seasons with an option for a third. The Nats are expecting Brian Goodwin to be ready to take that spot when Span is ready to become a free agent.
Adam LaRoche has been the Nats biggest concern all off-season, but they will not budge off of giving him a two year deal because they have Anthony Rendon who is going to need a spot in the Nats line-up, and first base is as good as any. The Nats are set up to be good now, as well as in the future. The first big free agent bloodletting comes after the 2015 season when Desmond, Zimmermann, and Clippard are set to become free agents. Losing those guys will hurt, but it won't stop a team that retains stars on the level of Zimmerman, Harper, and Strasburg.
Good teams are made up of stars and role players. Think of the best teams ever constructed and it will be obvious who the stars were and who were the still good but not great players. The best example of this type of team is the early 90's Bulls led by Jordan and Pippen. Other good players like Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman came and went, but without Jordan and Pippen the Bulls were a good but not great team. The Nats stars are Zimmerman, Strasburg, and Harper, and as long as they have those three they can find replacements for everyone else, and that sets the Nats up to be very good for the next five years or more.
The Nats are definitely thinking it
is for more. Mike Rizzo has cultivated a relationship with Scott Boras and will
make a run at retaining Strasburg and Harper before they hit free agency. It is
doubtful that Boras will let that happen, but if the money offered is enough
the player can override the agent much as Jared Weaver did. The
Nationals this off-season have also made keeping those players a priority. They
didn't jump into the free agent market for Zack Greinke when they could have,
but instead made a stand on saving money for the future with the idea of
keeping their own stars in place. This type of building philosophy is what led
the Braves to win 14 straight division titles.
2013 is going to be a continuation and a building on of what began in 2012. The Nationals are expected to be not just good, but great. They are rated as the second best team in baseball behind only the World Series champions by ESPN's leading analyst. That is respect, and it isn't the only rankings the Nationals will find themselves at or near the top of. As the 2013 season gets closer and closer, the more the hype will build and that feeling of it being strange and out of place will continue for many Nats fans, but get used to it. This isn't the last season the Nats will be viewed as one of the best teams in baseball.