In winning 98 games last year the Washington Nationals showed the National League how lethal their starting rotation was. Although anchored down by a controversial innings limit, ace Stephen Strasburg went to the All-Star Game, along with 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez. Jordan Zimmermann, who in pitching a full year after dealing with the same limits as Strasburg, became one of the hardest pitchers to face in the NL. Throw in Ross Detwiler, a fastballer lefty coming into his own and free agent signee Dan Haren, and you see why they have high expectations for 2013. The Nationals have World Series dreams and they lie with the five arms of their starting rotation in 2013:
1. Stephen Strasburg- This is what the Nationals have been dreaming of since Strasburg felt something funny in his elbow towards the end of 2010 that led to Tommy John surgery. The once-in-a-generation ace is finally going to pitch a full season in the majors. At 24, Strasburg is confident his arm can handle 200+ innings and carry his team deep into the playoffs, after a year that was cut short by a team-implemented innings limit. Strasburg must be the dominant pitcher that everyone expects him to be if the Nationals are to win the World Series.
2. Gio Gonzalez- Trading for Gonzalez, 27, made GM Mike Rizzo look like a genius as the Nationals acquired a hard-throwing lefty that would be placed perfectly in the rotation behind Strasburg. Gonzalez was everything Rizzo and the front office hoped for, by throwing for 21 wins, 207 strikeouts and finishing third in the Cy Young vote in the NL. However, earlier this month a story broke on a clinic in Miami linked to PEDs has Gonzalez on their books. To what extent Gonzalez is involved remains to be seen. How MLB reacts to this and what they come up with will be one off the stories for this Nationals team.
3. Jordan Zimmermann- If he had only had more run support last year, Zimmermann would be looked at in a different light. In his first year after Tommy John surgery and being able to pitch without an innings limit, Zimmermann was often untouchable, capping it off with a 0.97 ERA in July. His dominance as a number 3 starter was so apparent that Zimmermann was getting whispers of a Cy Young nomination. He did not get run support, so his win total suffered. Finishing with a 12-8 record with a 2.94 ERA, Zimmerman quietly had one of the better years in the National League. He ay be the best number 3 start in baseball.
4. Dan Haren- Brought to Washington to fill the hole in the rotation left by veteran Edwin Jackson, Dan Haren comes complete with a reliable, live arm and good control. A prototypical workhorse, Haren's 2012 campaign was the first since becoming a full-time starter in 2005 that he did not reach 200 innings. Assuming Jackson's spot as the vet in the rotation, Haren is 32, anchoring the four other 20-something starters in the rotation.
5. Ross Detwiler- After getting only late season and spot starts his first three years, Detwiler blossomed in his first year as a full time starter nestled quietly away as the 5-man. His fastball improved by a great deal in 2012 as it became a pitch that he threw to get hitters out with. As his confidence grew, so did his win count as Detwiler hit 10 wins for the first time in his career. If Detwiler can repeat that performance or beyond the Nationals would be thrilled.
1. How will MLB's investigation on the Biogenisis lab Miami play on Gio Gonzalez's performance? It will clearly be a distraction for Gio and his teammates once things get going in Viera, Florida this week. Gonzalez has handled it well so far, but he has not needed to face the media yet and a 50 game suspension is still a possibility. The Nationals are hoping the Gio's appearance in the World Baseball Classic creates some sort of diversion away from Gio and PEDs and back to preparing for what could be a title run. How the investigation plays out will have huge bearing on how possible that run can be.
2. Do the Nationals have depth in the rotation to withstand injuries? The Nationals rotation pitched through 2012 without any real trips to the DL or skipped starts. Even when Strasburg was shutdown, John Lannan was their to provide quality starts and big wins down the stretch. The chances of keeping that healthy again are slim. Lannan is now with the rival Phillies and Tom Gorzelanny, a long reliever/spot starter type is no longer on the team. Where the Nationals will go for depth is one of the few questions this team has. Do they pull Christian Garcia out of the pen? Do the sign someone else? Rizzo will be watching, that is assured.
3. Can Stephen Strasburg hold up for a 162 game season after being on an innings limit last year? The controversial decision to sit Strasburg for the year after only 159.1 innings last year was the talk of baseball last year. Criticism and questions arose even more when the Nationals failed to hold a 6-0 lead in game 5 of the NLDS with Strasburg watching from the dugout. The Nationals took the public lashing and criticism looking at this year for Strasburg to be 100% and to be the dominant pitcher the Nationals expect. Watching Strasburg develop into one of baseball's best pitchers will be interesting to watch.
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