Marty Niland: The top five reasons the Nationals will live up to their high expectations

By any measure, the Nationals’ 2012 season was an historic time in the nation’s capital. It was the city’s first winning season since 1969, its most wins and first postseason appearance in almost 80 years, and first postseason victory since the 1933 World Series.

The 2013 season could be even more historic. Few people alive today can remember a season with such high expectations for a Washington baseball team. The pundits at Sports Illustrated and other national media outlets are picking the Nationals to win the World Series. That’s a tall order for any team, let alone one playing in Washington. It’s been 88 years since this city’s baseball fans have witnessed postseason baseball in successive seasons and 89 years since they’ve seen a Series champion.

But the Nats have the swagger to take on those predictions. Manager Davey Johnson declared “World Series or bust” before the team even began making offseason moves. General manager Mike Rizzo backed him up, shoring up the team’s weaknesses at the top of the order and in the back of the bullpen.

So here are the top five reasons the Nationals can meet those high expectations and give Johnson a chance to back up his bold words:

1. Starting pitching, including a full year from Stephen Strasburg: Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann are potential No. 1 starters on just about any team in baseball. With Ross Detwiler, who turned in the team’s strongest postseason mound performance, and Dan Haren, who has been part of playoff teams in Oakland and St. Louis, rotations don’t get much deeper. The key will be a full season from Strasburg, who since 2010 has shown his potential to be the game’s top starter, but has been set back by injuries or recovery from them. After the team limited his innings in 2012 for the stated purpose of securing his future success, this is the year for him to prove he can dominate throughout the season.

2. A big year from Bryce Harper: Nobody in the Nationals organization is even thinking about a potential sophomore slump from the team’s budding offensive superstar. Following his stellar Rookie of the Year campaign (.270, 22 home runs, 59 RBIs), Harper has been thrust into the crucial third spot in the batting order at 20. After an offseason of daily conditioning workouts, hitting and running, Harper brought an extra 20 pounds of muscle to spring training and threw it around most effectively, hitting .478 with three homers and 15 RBIs in 67 at-bats. Batting between Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, there is little chance for opponents to pitch around him. Watch out.

3. Speed in the outfield and at the top of the order: One of the remarkable things about the Nationals’ 2012 season is that they accomplished everything they did without a prototypical leadoff hitter. Now they have one in Denard Span. His career .357 on-base percentage and low strikeout rate (88 per season) must have the Nats’ power hitters salivating at the RBI potential. Moving to the National League, where stealing bases is a bigger part of the game than it is in the American League, his speed makes him even more dangerous. On defense, Span has the potential to cover the ground and make big catches that could make a difference in a close pennant race.

4. A proven closer: When the Yankees lost future Hall of famer Mariano Rivera last season, they turned to Rafael Soriano. He responded by saving 42 games for a team that won the American League East and made it to the American League Championship Series. Soriano also racked up 45 saves for a division champion in Tampa Bay in 2010. His acquisition also improves the confidence of Drew Storen by moving him into the setup role where he thrived after returning from injury in 2012.

5. A deep, versatile infield: With Gold Glove winner Adam LaRoche at first, Danny Espinosa at second, Ian Desmond at short and Zimmerman at third, the Nats have arguably the best and most versatile infield in the NL, if not the majors. All are capable of stopping balls that get past most infielders, and LaRoche turns what could be throwing errors into outs. All have good power for their positions, as well. Espinosa can play short if Desmond gets hurt. Factor in backups Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore, and you have what the late, great Orioles manager Earl Weaver liked to call “deep depth.”

Of course, things always look rosy on opening day, before reality sets in with injuries, slumps and the grind of the long season. There are no guarantees. But from the looks of things, we’re in store for a classic division race between the Nats and the Atlanta Braves. That’s all you can hope for, a chance. A chance for Johnson’s dreams, and those of Nats fans everywhere, to come true. A chance for greatness.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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