With Opening Day just a few hours away, it’s hard to remain calm as a Washington Nationals fan. The team has only gotten better from a year ago, a 2012 season in which the Nats finished atop the National League with 98 wins. As more than half of analysts across major platforms such as Yahoo!, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated are picking manager Davey Johnson’s crew to win it all in 2013, the pressure is indeed upon all of us. Here are five players to keep an eye on this season that could very well make or break a World Series title:
Ask me at the end of the 2012 regular season if Danny Espinosa makes my list on April 1, and I probably would’ve said that the position belongs to no one but Steve Lombardozzi. Don’t get me wrong, Espi is a terrific fielder with a career .986 fielding percentage, but boy does this bearded wonder strike out a LOT. Last year, Espinosa increased his K% to a whopping 28.7%, good for 7th-worst across all of baseball. However, even amongst all the strikeouts, I shockingly believe Espi could have a terrific season in 2013. Commendably, he batted .333 this Spring with five doubles, two homers, and 10 RBIs in 78 at-bats. Moreover, he’s always been an at least an above-average hitter against lefties, and if he is able improve against righties, this season could hold great things for Espinosa.
Most people care to forget that last May 7, not only did Bryce Harper steal home on the Phillies’ Cole Hamels, but starting right fielder Jayson Werth broke his wrist diving for a fly ball on the very same day, an injury that would hold him out until early August. Ever since Werth signed a 7-year, $126 million deal in 2010, expectations have been immense, and after the month of April in which he hit .273 with a pair of homeruns, fans thought maybe 2012 could be the year for Werth to break out. Nevertheless, coming off a 2012 playoffs where this bearded wonder hit the winning homer in Game 4 of the NLDS, Werth could be poised for a great 2013 if he can stay healthy.
With a loaded starting rotation featuring some of the best pitchers in the game of baseball, fans have been overlooking the Nats’ No. 5 starter this season, Ross Detwiler. A National since 2007, Detwiler finally got his chance to pitch in the starting rotation in 2012. While you might’ve been focusing on Gio and Strasburg throughout the summer months, “The National Det” also attacked opponents very well, finishing the season with a 3.40 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 27 starts. Some projection analysts have his ERA dipping into the 4-range, but again being around so much talent, I like Detwiler to have a similar season in 2013 and be very much a factor in the Nationals reaching the playoffs.
Now, before this is all said and done, who could forget to put a guy like Mr. National on this list? Ryan Zimmerman has been with the DC club since its inception in 2005, and shockingly enough, the starting third baseman is only 28 years old. 2012 marked a very up-and-down season for Zimmerman, as he went into a game on June 23 against the Baltimore Orioles with just a .218 batting average and in the middle of a 13-for-78 (.167) slump. However, after receiving a cortizone shot before the game to help repair a nagging shoulder injury, Zimm would go on an absolute tear and finish the season with a .282 batting average and 3.8 WAR. While every player is bound to enter some sort of slump during a given season, I expect Zimmerman to thrive against National League pitching for yet another year if he, like Werth, can stay healthy.
Even with a guy named Strasburg being a member of this team, there might not be a more recognizable face on the Nationals than 20-year-old phenom and reigning NL Rookie of the Year, Bryce Haper. Obviously you know all about him–the guy who scored 98 runs and stole 18 bases while not being part of the club for the first full month of the season last year. However, even through all the fame and glory, there’s absolutely zero chance we’ve seen the best of this man’s capabilities. Harper begins 2013 having hit an eye-popping .478 during Spring Training, and while people may claim those numbers don’t mean much, this guy may have the 5-tool skill set of Willie Mays if I’ve ever seen it. And with that, the season is afoot.