Falling into Expectations
With the slight of hand of the Braves pitching injuries distracting everyone from the rest of their team, the Dodgers injuries in the outfield and first base and lack of depth at third base, second, and catcher, and the Cardinals lack of superstar talent the Nationals are falling into the same position they were last season at this time. Most people in the know will still list the Cardinals as the best team in the NL and the Dodgers are loaded with big names, but that isn't stopping anyone from loading up the Nationals with plenty of expectations. The starting staff of Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Fister, and either Jordan or Roark can compete with any five man rotation in baseball, and the Nationals have been luckier than most teams when it comes to injuries this Spring.
For the earlier part of the season the Nationals should be the best team in the NL. They don't have nearly the questions of any of the NL contenders, but as all Nationals fans learned last season a complete roster isn't always the best thing. When problems arose on the 25 man roster early in 2013 they weren't addressed in a timely enough fashion and it's still early became too late quicker than anyone expected. The Nationals have a chance to take advantage of the early roster issues of the Braves and Dodgers to get out to a head start in the NL, but those teams won't stay injured and the totality of the season is far more important than a good couple months at the beginning.
People make judgments based on current evidence and as it stands heading into the season the Nationals appear to once again have the most complete roster with the fewest questions and because of the performance of player competing for jobs in Spring Training they also appear to have a good amount of depth. Stephen Souza, Blake Treinen, and Zach Walters look like players that could all help the Nationals at some point during the season. AJ Cole and Felipe Rivero both had decent Springs when they were in majors camp and one or both could make an impact at some point in the majors this season, and that isn't even to mention other minor league players that weren't even in majors camp like Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan in 2013.
The biggest failing of the 2013 Washington Nationals was how they performed against the Braves, Cardinals, and Dodgers. They were a combined 7-24 against those teams. Give them a record of 15-16 in those 31 games and that makes the Nationals a 94 win team. Their inability to perform against the cream of the NL doomed them, and the Cardinals and Dodgers got better over the off-season. Are Doug Fister and Nate McLouth enough of a different for the Nationals to catch up to those teams? The answer to that is an obvious no. If the Nationals are going to live up to expectations they need Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg to reach their potential. Both had good seasons last year, but neither of them were in any talks for post-season awards and when it comes to transcendent talent they need to be in those talks in order for the Nationals to reach their full potential.
When it comes down to it the Nationals should be listed among favorites to win the NL, but they don't stand alone. There isn't much separation between the Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Braves. Those four teams should all make the playoffs, but the Pirates, Reds, Diamondbacks, and Giants should also be contenders in the NL. The difference between the 2013 and 2014 Nationals is that while there are expectations they are much more muted. Remember last season the Nationals were supposed to run away from everyone else. This season everyone is considered much more bunched up, and that should be good for the Nationals and for the rest of the contenders in the NL. There is nothing better than well played, competitive baseball and we should be treated to plenty of that in 2014.