WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – After the coldest January in memory in Washington, we’re supposed to get hammered by a snowstorm tonight and tomorrow. Meanwhile, it’s supposed to be 82 today in Viera, Fla. where the Nationals’ pitchers and catchers will report tomorrow as their 2014 season begins to unfold.
Thirteen of the 19 pitchers and three of the four catchers who reported to Viera last February will do so again tomorrow. And yet much has changed for the Nats during the past year.
The “World Series Or Bust” boast by 70-year-old manager Davey Johnson in the wake of 2012’s National League East crown has been replaced by the hard-nosed attitude of 48-year-old rookie skipper Matt Williams.
Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann, each an All-Star during one of the past two seasons, return as rotation mainstays, but superb sinker-baller Doug Fister (14-9, 3.67 earned run average, 159 strikeouts, just 44 walks in 2013) has been acquired from Detroit and should be much more of a threat to break into the top three than 2013 disappointing free agent Dan Haren ever was.
After an underwhelming, injury-plagued season, Ross Detwiler will have to fend off Tanner Roark (7-1, 1.51 ERA in 14 games, five starts) and Taylor Jordan (1-3, 3.66, nine starts) and perhaps heady veteran Ross Ohlendorf and Christian Garcia (2.13 in 12-2/2 innings in 2012 but limited by injuries to 9-1/3 innings in the minors in 2013) to remain the No. 5 starter.
Closer Rafael Soriano and former closers Tyler Clippard (2012) and Drew Storen (2011) are back in the bullpen for pitching coach Steve McCatty as are long man Craig Stammen and set-up man Ryan Mattheus, who — like Storen – spent time in the minors during a frustrating 2013 season which included a broken hand courtesy of a punched locker. Unlike Mattheus, Storen prospered after his return from Class AAA Syracuse, posting a 1.40 ERA in his final 21 games.
Last spring, the Nats gambled and failed by having the unreliable Zach Duke as their only left-handed reliever. So this winter, Washington traded for 30-year-old Jerry Blevins, who had a 3.30 ERA in six seasons with Oakland, going 5-0, 3.15 in 67 games last year. Another lefty, Sammy Solis, who starred in the Arizona Fall League after recovering from Tommy John surgery, could make a push for a bullpen spot, too.
Kurt Suzuki, the Nats’ catcher during the 2012 playoffs, was traded back to the A’s last August, making Wilson Ramos the unquestioned starter behind the plate. Ramos, who was kidnapped in his native Venezuela in November 2011 and missed most of 2012 with a knee injury, finished 2013 strong. Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon, who have combined for all of 50 games in the majors, are the only other catches on the 40-man roster so it’s essential that the 26-year-old Ramos stay healthy for a full big league season for the first time.
Unlike Johnson, who had managed in the majors for all or part of 16 seasons before 2013 and was thus used to handling pitchers and catchers, that duty will be a new experience above Class AA for Williams. A five-time All-Star third baseman, Williams spent the past five seasons coaching for Arizona, mostly at third base.
While he was best known for his bat, Williams also won four Gold Gloves for his fielding. So although the Nats might have the best starting quartet in the league and a bullpen with three potential closers, the new manager is also counting on his defense to be better than the group that ranked 13th in the NL in 2013.
“We have to understand what our pitchers are going to throw,’ “ Williams explained. “How are our pitchers going to attack opposing hitters and how can we play accordingly? It’s a very fine line between two and a half runs and three and a half runs or four and a half runs. If we can cut one down at some point during that game, we have a much better chance of winning.”
And while Washington joined Atlanta, Cincinnati and St. Louis as the only NL clubs to finish over .500 in 2012 and 2013, the returning Nats can expect a more strict approach to spring training under Williams.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be tougher,” he said. “I think it’s just … regimented. I get all bunched up if I don’t have a plan. Oftentimes, that plan’s completely wrong, but at least I have a plan. … We’ve got it kind of mapped out what we want to accomplish.”
Which ultimately will be getting back to postseason. And this time, winning once they get there.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last four Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.