WASHINGTON NATIONALS (NL East)
2013 record: 86-76 (second, 10 GB)
Projected 2014: 89.5
World Series odds: 8/1
Key additions: Doug Fister
X factor: Bryce Harper
Projected starting lineup: Infield: C – W.Ramos; 1B – A. LaRoche; 2B – A. Rendon; 3B – R. Zimmerman; SS – I. Desmond. Outfield: LF – B. Harper; CF – D. Span; RF – J. Werth.
Starting rotation: S. Strasburg, G. Gonzalez, J. Zimmerman, D. Fister, R. Detwiler.
Closer: R. Soriano.
A recent and unscientific poll of major leaguers said that Bryce Harper was the most overrated player in baseball.
That’s not likely to sit well with Nationals management and fans both in DC and here in Las Vegas where Bryce was Sports Illustrated and every baseball publication’s cover boy as the unquestioned No. 1 high school prospect in the nation out of Bishop Gorman.
Overrated? Harper made the National League All Star teams at age 19 and 20 -- his first two seasons with the Nats. OK, he didn’t bat .400, drive in 150 runs or be a 50-50 player (homers/steals). But he wasn’t exactly chopped liver, though did approach it by running into too many outfield walls with his hustle.
Add Harper with the team’s other franchise player, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, and Washington became clearly the team that “put the cart before the horse.” World Series predictions came before this young team even broke the .500 mark.
A couple of years ago, management sat Strasburg down to protect their future investment and likely sacrificed a playoff berth. Last year, the Nats made a miracle push to a Wild Card only to fall four games short of Cincinnati for the second Wild Card spot.
Now things may finally be falling into place with the Phillies unsure, the Mets and Marlins reloading and the favored Atlanta Braves losing the top two starting pitchers to major injuries.
The LVH SuperBook projects Washington for 89.5 victories. If any team in the NL East wins 90 to 95 games, it’s likely to be the Nationals.
With so much balance on Washington this could really be the year both Harper and Strasburg have career seasons.
Jayson Werth, who looks like Wolfman but plays at times like Superman, comes off a big 2013 season for the Nats with a .318 batting average and 82 RBI. Ryan Zimmerman hit 29 homers and fleet center fielder Denard Span had 170 hits.
Strasburg’s 3.00 ERA led the starting staff, but Geo Gonzalez fanned 192, Jordan Zimmerman won 19 games, Rafael Soriano had 43 saves and Tyler Clippard 33 holds.
And Washington said goodbye to Davey Johnson as manager and hello to another Las Vegas favorite son Matt Williams, a star at UNLV who had his best seasons as a standout third baseman with the San Francisco Giants.
Williams should infuse some younger excitement into the Nationals, who were nurtured by Johnson in trying to instill the confidence from the team he managed to the 1986 world championship with the Mets.
Bottom line: The Nats play their first 14 games against the Mets, Braves and Marlins. It wouldn’t surprise us to see them go 10-4 heading into a possible NL pennant preview with St. Louis. Yes, lofty expectations do seem to follow the Nats. Just ask Harper.
Mark Mayer has over 35 years covering sports events and is the sports editor at GT. Reach him at [email protected].