Fauber: Early optimism again for Nationals

The start of spring training is just two short weeks away (less than one week away for a select few MLB teams), as a majority of pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to camps during the second full week of February.

It was around this time of year last year that the hype for the Washington Nationals began to really gain some steam, as it usually does for teams that appear to be poised for a deep run into October. The Nationals entered last spring as the seemingly undisputed favorite to take the crown in the National League East, and a lot of people — myself included — liked Washington’s chances of reaching the World Series.

Spring training came and went and Opening Day rolled around, and the optimism surrounding the 2013 Nationals only grew with their season opening win over NL East foe Miami. In that 2-0 win, things played out exactly how they should have for Washington. Ace Stephen Strasburg — primed for his first full MLB season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in late 2010 — tossed seven scoreless innings and budding superstar Bryce Harper homered in his first two at-bats, prompting a curtain call from the 45,000-plus fans at Nationals Park.

The Nationals went on to sweep the lowly Marlins in three games, and it appeared to be just the start of what was sure to be a spectacular season in Washington. Except that it wasn’t. The Nationals finished the month of April with a 13-14 record — a mark that included five losses to NL East rival Atlanta — and Washington struggled to maintain a .500 record for most of the 2013 season.

Washington did manage to end the regular season with an 18-9 record in September to finish at 86-76, but the Braves still won the division by 10 games. The Nationals found themselves out of the playoffs and slapped with the label as one of the season’s biggest disappointments.

The Nationals and their fans have had several long months to push last season’s flop out of their minds, and as Major League Baseball gears up for Spring Training 2014, Washington again finds itself as the early favorite in the NL East, or at least it should be. But how good are the Nationals, and is it reasonable to once again expect Washington to be one of the best teams in baseball?

To be fair, most of the Nationals struggles last season came because they simply couldn’t remain healthy. Injuries to Harper and fellow star outfielder Jayson Werth hindered Washington’s offensive output for large chunks of the season. And Strasburg — who went 8-9 last season with a 3.00 ERA and 191 strikeouts — was nagged all season long by discomfort caused by bone chips in his throwing elbow.

Werth returned to healthy form late in 2013 and was a big reason for Washington’s sudden resurgence, and Harper is currently working his way back from offseason surgery to repair the bursa in his knee. Strasburg has also proclaimed himself a full go for spring training following minor surgery on his elbow. That’s all great news for the Nationals.

If healthy, this year’s Washington team could be the team we all thought it would be last season. It could even be better.

The core of the Nationals’ lineup has remained intact for first-year head coach Matt Williams, with guys like Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos providing some solid run production around Werth and Harper.

And of course there is the starting rotation, which is now even better with the addition of Doug Fister, who was swiped from Detroit in exchange for Steve Lombardozzi and a pair of lefty pitching prospects. Fister, who was 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA and 159 strikeouts with the Tigers last season, joins a rotation that will include Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez (11-8, 3.36 ERA, 192 strikeouts in 2013) and Jordan Zimmerman (19-9, 3.25, 161). The Nationals should easily have one of the top five rotations in all of baseball.

Then you have to take into account the status of the NL East. The Mets are still the Mets, the Phillies are currently a mess and the Marlins look a lot like last year’s 62-100 team, albeit with an upgrade at catcher in Jarrod Saltalamacchia and a talented young pitching staff that should continue to improve.

That just leaves the Braves as Washington’s only real threat, and even they have question marks. Atlanta said goodbye to catcher Brian McCann and will have to get better offensive production from recent underachievers Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. The Braves’ pitching staff, which appears to lack a true ace, could also have some holes.

Things are set up nicely for Washington to make a postseason run this year, and the Nationals should have every reason for optimism as Opening Day rapidly approaches. But then again, we’ve been there before.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD