3/28/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Blossoming star power has Nats thinking big
By Bill Ladson / MLB.com
VIERA, Fla. -- The Nationals are looking to win their second National League East title in as many seasons, and they have the talent to repeat.
Led by Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals' rotation is among the most feared in the game. The bullpen is just as lethal, with Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and closer Rafael Soriano expected to be the late-inning guys. Washington also has a balanced lineup, having acquired center fielder Denard Span, a leadoff hitter the club had been seeking for years.
"The key to success is the same as it was last year," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "We feel we have a talented group of players -- keep them healthy and playing just to their potential, not above their potential -- at their potential. I think we have a good chance to win a lot of games."
According to Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, the Nationals are the team to beat in the NL East, but he thinks there is a way to prevent them from winning the division.
"We have to beat each other up," Gonzalez said. "I think [the Braves], Philadelphia and I think some of the other teams are better than what people are thinking. I think the Mets are going to be better than what people say, and I think the Marlins are better than what people say. I think it boils down to who stays healthy. Everybody is going to have a little nick and bruise here and there."
Last year, the Nationals were fortunate. Having lost five key players -- Ian Desmond, Michael Morse, Wilson Ramos, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman -- to injuries, the team relied on players from its farm system to make up for the losses.
When Zimmerman went on the disabled list with a right shoulder injury last April, Washington called up Bryce Harper, who went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award. When Morse was out with a strained right lat muscle, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore filled in as a platoon in left field. When Desmond went down with a torn left oblique, the Nationals had Danny Espinosa play shortstop, while Lombardozzi received time at second base.
"It's a credit to the organization," said Astros manager Bo Porter, who was Washington's third-base coach in 2012. "It's a credit to their development in the Minor Leagues. You look at last year, everyone will look at the front-line stars -- the Werths, the Zimmermans, the Harpers, the Strasburgs. … When you look at it, it was the Roger Bernadinas, the Steve Lombardozzis, the Tyler Moores -- the guys that were able to come in when we had those injuries and play crucial roles and allow us to continue to win despite having key guys out of the lineup."
So far in 2013, the Nationals have not been faced with any major injuries. Harper has a sore right thumb, and reliever Henry Rodriguez is dealing with right elbow soreness, but there isn't any talk of putting them on the DL. If Rodriguez does however wind up on the DL, the club could add J.C. Romero to the roster to be the second lefty out of the bullpen.
However, the Nationals may have problems with lefties out of the bullpen. For the most part, they have struggled during Spring Training.
Late last season, the Nationals had productive left-handers in Tom Gorzelanny, Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez, who all made the postseason roster. But Gorzelanny was non-tendered, and Burnett and Gonzalez departed as free agents.
However, manager Davey Johnson is not worried about not having enough southpaws in the bullpen. As of now, Zach Duke is slated to be Washington's only lefty reliever, and he has struggled for most of Spring Training, allowing seven runs in 11 2/3 innings entering Wednesday.
"We have guys who are good against both [righty and lefty hitters]," Johnson said. "I'm not really that concerned about it. We lost three of them last year that were pretty instrumental [in helping the club win the division title]. But we have Soriano. He is good either way. We have plenty of late-inning relief."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.