Oh, the burdens of Washington sports fans' high expectations.
Where else can a team be considered a failure when it completes its second straight winning season after seven straight years of finishing .500 or below? But that's how we roll in the nation's capital, where 86-76 isn't good enough, especially after the retiring manager proclaims "World Series or bust." After the national media jumped on the bandwagon, those expectations seemed to drag down down the Washington Nationals' bats, as if they had never knocked off the weights in the on-deck circle.
Indeed, for all their other troubles - ineffective fifth starters, spotty defense, inability to keep runners from stealing bases - it was their lack of hitting and inability to score runs that cost the Nationals their National League East crown and kept them from returning to the postseason in 2013.
To be fair, the Nats' hitting line of .251/.313/.397 was middling, but still a cut below most playoff teams. Those numbers would have been a lot worse if not for a September surge in which they went .260/.324/.411, outslugging all the NL playoff teams. Their 127 runs in that stretch were more than everyone in the league except St. Louis.
Will the Nationals carry its September ways into 2014? Here are five reasons the team's offense should rebound this season:
1. A healthy Bryce Harper: Everything else aside, having Harper at full strength all season will go a long way toward curing the Nationals' offensive woes. Before injuring himself in collisions with outfield walls in Atlanta and Los Angeles, Harper was hitting .344/.430/.720 with nine home runs and 18 RBIs. Afterward, playing through bursitis in a painful knee that required offseason surgery, he finished at a respectable .274/.348/.486 with 20 homers and 58 RBIs. His slash line was actually an across-the-board improvement on 2012, when he was Rookie of the Year, but it could have been oh, so much more.
Harper insists his knee is healthy and came into spring training looking more muscular than ever. Can we expect a monster season like the one he was projecting before his injury last year? Probably not, but it's not unreasonable to foresee numbers on par with the best National league outfielders, laying to rest the derision of his peers in a recent ESPN poll as baseball's most overrated player.
2. A seasoned Denard Span: The leadoff man's 2013 was not unusual for a player changing leagues. He struggled early, hitting .263/.320/.358 before the All-Star break as he was just getting to know National League pitchers. His second time around the league, he knew what to expect and began nailing the ball. He went .302/.337./.413 with team-record 29-game hitting streak in the second half to finish at .279/.327/.380.
This year, after a spring training in which he hit a blistering .370/.382/.463, Span is primed to continue the progress he was making at the end of last season. If he does, the middle of the Nats order will have lot off RBI opportunities.
3. Adam LaRoche in a contract year: Of all the players in the lineup, the Nats first baseman epitomized the team's struggles at the plate. He followed the second-best statistical year of his big league career (.271/.343/.510 with a career-high 33 homers in 2012) with his worst full season in the majors (.237/.332/.403 with 20 home runs). If the 34-year-old is going to bounce back, it will be this year, the final season of the two-year deal he signed before last season. The Nats will likely be looking at other options at first in 2015, and LaRoche will need to impress prospective teams where he might catch on as a starter.
4. A rebuilt bench: The Nationals' pinch-hitting in 2013 was abysmal at .207/.249/.357, so general manager Mike Rizzo cleaned house. The most important addition was Kevin Frandsen, a right-handed hitter who has gone .265/.318/.343 in his career as a pinch-hitter. From the left side, it's Nate McLouth, who hit .258/.329/.399 in 146 games last season in Baltimore. He also had a penchant for clutch hitting, going .303/.403/.439 late in close games. Jose Lobaton, the backup catcher, hit .249/.320/.394 in 100 games last season with Tampa Bay. Rays fans won't forget his walkoff home run off Red Sox closer Koji Uehara in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.
5. A new manager: No one is knocking Davey Johnson's Hall of Fame credentials here. But the laid-back skipper's challenge to the team to go out and win him a pennant in his final season may not have been the best approach. Rookie manager Matt Williams will probably be less patient than Johnson, especially with young players. His fiery leadership style will keep the clubhouse on its toes, though, and if the Nats come up short again in 2014, it won't be for lack of trying.
The Nationals' offense definitely let them down in 2013. But with a potentially dominating pitching staff, a significant improvement at the plate should be enough to propel them back to the top of the NL East and into the postseason once again.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com'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 MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.