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Washington Nationals 2013 Season Preview: Bryce Harper MVP?

1:42 PM, Mar 29, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (WUSA) -- For many reasons, I will never forget the night of October 12 and the wee morning hours of October 13 -- the date of doom for the 2012 Washington Nationals.

Clubhouse attendants rapidly wheeled carts of champagne from the Nationals locker room to the Cardinals. Drew Storen produced possibly the numbest interview I'll ever be a part of. The image of his subsequent emotionless face as he cleaned out his locker was painful to view. Veteran reporters had visible lumps in their throats, trying to assemble any question of merit.

But perhaps what I'll remember most vividly is the conversation I had in the parking lot with ESPN's baseball historian Tim Kurkjian, at 1:55 in the morning.

"There's been 200,000 baseball games played. That may be as depressing of a loss in MLB history," marveled Kurkjian about the unraveling of the Nationals.

But here's the part of our conversation that has stuck with me during the past six months: "When the Nats win a World Series, and they will, they will point to this loss as the reason why."

And that's the thing with the Washington Nationals. The consensus of baseball experts agree it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. So the entire organization is on board to up the ante, quadruple the amount pressure on themselves to win the whole enchilada. And on paper, why not?

The lineup is overflowing with players full of power, speed and defense. The rotation is ready to overthrow the Philadelphia Phillies as the scariest in all of baseball. The bullpen depth will keep arms fresh throughout the hot summer months. And the Goon Squad bench is capable of handling injuries at any spot.

Whether you like the slogan "World Series or Bust," or not, it's buzzing in the air of Washington D.C. The NLDS loss to the Cardinals feels as if it's brought the team closer together. There's little arguing that Davey Johnson, 70, is the town's most popular coach -- full of dashing confidence, wise expertise and the notion that he can weather any potential baseball storm. The script is set for his final season. Will he pull all the right strings? Will there be a parade downtown in early November, with players hoisting the historical World Series trophy?

I do predict the Nationals to advance to this fall's World Series, but with an eventual loss to the Detroit Tigers. The entire Nats organization is putting the pedal to the metal from day one. That intensity is new to everyone. The bumps in the road will be bumpier. The scrutiny on every misstep will be hard to ignore. 

My guess is the Tigers experience will trump the Nationals youth this season. But much like how the Nationals brass treated the Stephen Strasburg situation in 2012, there is no rush. It's not a matter of if, but when for the Nationals. Making it all the way to the title game this year, even without coming away with jewelry, should be viewed as the biggest sports success D.C. has seen since 1991. 

Who will exceed expectations?

Left fielder Bryce Harper: No, he isn't going to post 50 homers and 50 steals. But 40/40 won't be out of the question, along with several first place MVP votes. We're never supposed to read into spring training statistical results, but Harper has been knocking the cover off of the baseball. The 20-year-old is set to make the transition to batting third in the lineup. And with a legitimate leadoff hitter in Denard Span, and one of the most patient hitters in the MLB in Jayson Werth, pitching around Harper will be a rugged task in 2013. 

Shortstop Ian Desmond: On the surface it seems unlikely that Desmond could improve on his gaudy 2012 numbers (.292, 25 HR's, 73 RBI's and 21 steals). But I'd expect it. Remember Desmond fought through a painful oblique injury for a good portion of last season. Davey Johnson has indicated his offense will take a less power and more speed approach this season. I bet Desmond's steal total hovers right above 30.

Relief pitcher Tyler Clippard: People tend to forget it was Clippard's 14 consecutive save streak in May/June that helped cement the Nationals as serious contenders. He skillfully cleaned up the Henry Rodriguez mess. Davey called Clippard's spring "nearly perfect." Don't be surprised if Rafael Soriano struggles, Clippard's name is called first to slide back into the closers role. 

Who has the most pressure on them?

First baseman Adam LaRoche: How will the 33-year-old LaRoche respond following a career-year and a brand new contract? He will never admit it, but expecting another 33 homers and 100 RBI's would be an utter sensation. That's not knocking LaRoche. That's being realistic. If his bat has lost some sizzle, Tyler Moore should see some increased action at first base.

Second baseman Danny Espinosa: Davey rode out Espinosa's early season 2012 struggles. His 1-for-15 performance in the playoffs against St. Louis is something that's kind of gone unnoticed this offseason. Espinosa was clearly the weakest link at the plate last season. If that's apparent by June of 2013, some kind of change should be made. It's known that Espinosa is one of Johnson's favorites, though.

Relief pitcher Drew Storen: Read why I think this is a career defining year for Storen. Although he's a favorite of the media, teammates and fans, there's a chance he could become trade bait.

Starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez: Luckily for Gonzalez the PED questions seem to be over with. The 2012 Cy Young candidate was a catalyst for success in his first season as his National -- with his swooping curveball and goofy, yet effective clubhouse leadership. Because of the precedent he's set, anything less than 20 wins from Gio or any ERA over 3.00 will be deemed disappointing.

Two under the radar storylines

1) Does Rafael Soriano keep the closing duties all season long?

Heading into his 12th MLB season, Soriano didn't become a full-time closer until 2009, with the Atlanta Braves. The 33-year-old has been rather dominant ever since, and is used to pitching in pressure packed situations with the New York Yankees. Here's what I wonder: will his leash be shorter as Davey Johnson tries to figure out how to manage him? Does Davey have a soft spot for Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, fully knowing both want the ninth inning role. The closer duties will be something interesting to monitor all season long, esepcially because the position is the main reason the Nationals fell the Cardinals in the playoffs. A committee approach by mid-season seems like it could be a serious option.

2) Does Anthony Rendon get a crack at the major league roster?

Unless several injuries occur, or Danny Espinosa finds himself in the doghouse, it's quite unlikely we'll see the 22-year-old potential superstar. That is unless Davey gets his way. Let's face it: it's Johnson's last go-round. He wants all the ammunition he can get.

Final predictions

AL East: Tampa Bay Rays

AL Central: Detroit Tigers

AL West: Los Angeles Angels

AL Wildcards: Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers

NL East: Washington Nationals

NL Central: Cincinnatti Reds

NL West: San Francisco Giants

NL Wild Cards: St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies

ALCS: Tigers over Rays

NLCS: Nationals over Giants

World Series: Tigers over Nationals

AL MVP: Robinson Cano

NL MVP: Bryce Harper

AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander

NL Cy Young: Matt Cain

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