(SportsNetwork.com) - For nearly two months down the stretch of the 2013 season, no team had a better record than the Washington Nationals.
Thanks to a slow start, it wasn't enough to get the Nationals back into the playoffs.
Following a long-awaited NL East title in 2012, the Nationals were certainly a trendy pick last season for a deep postseason run. And who could blame those banking on a club that featured talents like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman?
Washington even opened up the season with a three-game sweep of the Miami Marlins, but offensive struggles and inconsistency had the Nats six games under .500 on Aug. 7.
The Nationals finally went on a run, going 32-16 from that point on, but still finished 10 games out of first place in the division and four back of a wild card spot.
Washington will return essentially the same group from last season with one major upgrade to its rotation after acquiring right-hander Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers.
The Nats also added lefty Jerry Blevins to the bullpen and sprinkled in some bench pieces, but as far as offense goes they are just hoping for a little luck in 2014. Last season's early issues were in part due to injuries suffered by Harper, fellow outfielder Jayson Werth and catcher Wilson Ramos.
While the changes to the roster were minimal, Washington does have a new skipper in place after hiring Matt Williams to replace retired manager Davey Johnson.
Johnson was able to get the most out of his players in the run to a division crown two years ago and it will be up to Williams to keep the franchise trending in the right direction.
2013 FINISH (86-76) - 2nd Place (NL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Doug Fister (RHP), Mike Gonzalez (LHP), Jose Lobaton (C), Nate McLouth (OF), Jerry Blevins (LHP)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Dan Haren (RHP), Chad Tracy (INF), Steve Lombardozzi (INF/OF)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Denard Span (CF), Ryan Zimmerman (3B), Bryce Harper (LF), Jayson Werth (RF), Adam LaRoche (1B), Ian Desmond (SS), Wilson Ramos (C), Anthony Rendon (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Stephen Strasburg (RHP), Gio Gonzalez (LHP), Jordan Zimmermann (RHP), Doug Fister (RHP), Tanner Roark (RHP)/Taylor Jordan (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Rafael Soriano (RHP)
MANAGER: Matt Williams
HOW GOOD IS THE ROTATION?
The Nationals boast easily the best starting five in the NL East and one could argue it is among the best in baseball. That, despite the fact that they will likely have a rookie as their fifth starter come April.
Strasburg has already made a name for himself and should have no limitations on his workload going forward, while lefty Gio Gonzalez was a 21-game winner in 2012 before going 11-8 with a 3.36 earned run average 32 starts last season.
However, the true breaking point that puts Washington's top three over the hump is Jordan Zimmermann. The consistent righty has put early injury issues behind him and was the ace of the staff in 2013, going 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA and two shutouts in 32 starts.
In 113 career starts, the 27-year-old holds a lifetime ERA of 3.40.
Even with three studs leading off the rotation, the Nationals added some impressive depth when they sent infielder Steve Lombardozzi and prospects Ian Krol and Robbie Ray to the Tigers for Fister. It was a small price to pay to secure an arm that has won 35 games and posted a 3.30 ERA over the past three seasons.
And with Ross Detwiler set to come out of the bullpen, Washington is giving either the 27-year-old Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan, 25, the chance to win the fifth spot.
Both are right-handers and made MLB debuts last season. Jordan went 1-3 with a 3.66 ERA in nine starts, while Roark posted a 7-1 mark and 1.51 ERA in 14 games with five starts.
WHY IS THE JERRY BLEVINS MOVE SO IMPORTANT?
Washington rolled the dice a bit by going into last season with just one left- hander in its bullpen. But that southpaw, Zach Duke, was released on June 10 after having posted an 8.71 ERA in 12 games.
Fernando Abad ended up as the left-hander to make the most appearances out of the bullpen last season, but was dealt to Oakland on Nov. 25. Krol also got a chance out of Washington's bullpen later in the season, but was part of the cost for Fister.
That makes Washington's acquisition of Blevins from Oakland in a separate trade in December key. He's projected to join free agent signee Mike Gonzalez and Detwiler to give Williams options, but should be the manager's go-to guy late in games. The 6-foot-6 Blevins posted a 3.30 ERA in 281 games with Oakland over the last seven seasons.
Blevins has held left-handed hitters to a .224 average over his career, but can be used for more than one batter. He also has held righties to a .240 clip, though he tends to issue more walks to those hitters.
CAN WERTH CONTINUE HIS PACE FROM LAST SEASON?
The Nationals' lineup is far from perfect. Leadoff hitter Denard Span could stand to get on base more, Ramos needs to stay healthy and Anthony Rendon needs to settle into a starting role at second base.
But Washington also knows it can count on big numbers from Harper, at least 20 homers out of third baseman Zimmerman and solid pop by shortstop Ian Desmond. Werth is also a big factor and the 34-year-old is the veteran leader of the lineup.
He is also coming off his best season in terms of getting on base.
Werth posted the second-best OPS in Nats history, posting a career-high .931 and was the only player in the NL to rank in the top five in batting (.318), slugging percentage (.532) and OPS. However, he also was limited to just 129 games last season due to injury after having played in just 81 the previous campaign.
Werth takes a lot of pressure off the younger Harper, Ramos and Desmond and can hit in a number of different spots in the lineup. He just has to be healthy enough to do so.
X-FACTOR: ADAM LACROCHE
There was talks of moving Zimmerman over to first base due to issues with his surgically repaired right shoulder that hindered his ability to throw across the diamond. But the third baseman righted those issues by season's end and the Nats felt good enough rolling with Adam LaRoche at first base again. That is somewhat of a gamble given his drop off from 2012 to last season. Two years ago, the 34-year-old bounced back from to hit .271 and slug a career-high 33 homers while driving in 100 runs. He looked to build off that excellent season last year, but wound up hitting a mere .237 with 20 homers and 62 RBI. His strikeouts remained about the same, so it simply of factor of hitting into more outs. LaRoche will need to rebound this year or risk stalling Washington's offense.
The Nationals should emerge as the top team in the shaky NL East as long as they stay healthy. Their rotation can go head-to-head with any team in the league and their lineup should what it can late last season do down the stretch. This team's success will depend on how that lineup comes together -- Span needs to get on base; Harper and Werth must stay healthy -- but the pitching is good enough to overcome some minor shortcomings in the run department. It should be division crown or bust for this club.