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Williams Takes Over More Talented, Less Pressured Nats Team

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Manager Matt Williams #9 of the Washington Nationals poses for a portrait at Space Coast Stadium during photo day on February 23, 2014 in Viera, Florida. (Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Manager Matt Williams #9 of the Washington Nationals poses for a portrait at Space Coast Stadium during photo day on February 23, 2014 in Viera, Florida. (Credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – On paper, there was no clear explanation for why the Nationals won 14 fewer games in 2013 than they had during their glorious 2012 campaign.

Beyond first baseman Adam LaRoche plummeting to earth at the plate, it was more a case of a little less of this (less power with newcomers Denard Span and Anthony Rendon than had been provided by the traded Michael Morse and the demoted Danny Espinosa) and a little more of that (13 more errors).

Left-hander Gio Gonzalez and shortstop Ian Desmond didn’t match their career years from the National League East title-winning season. However, closer Alfonso Soriano and catcher Wilson Ramos were upgrades at their spots over Tyler Clippard (who thrives in the eighth inning) and the since-traded Kurt Suzuki. Fifth starter Ross Detwiler’s tumble shouldn’t have made a huge impact, but it added to Washington’s general malaise last summer.

After sweeping Miami in the opening series at home en route to a 7-3 start, the Nats went just 79-73 the rest of the way, including an 18-9 record after they began September a hopeless 14 games behind front-running Atlanta in the NL East. So in between its 7-3 start and 18-9 finish, Washington was an ugly 59-66.

That from a team that boasted a trio of recent All-Stars (Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann) in its rotation, two in its bullpen (Soriano and Clippard), two in its infield (Desmond and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman) and two in its outfield (Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth). Not to mention a manager (Davey Johnson) with six division championships and a World Series trophy on his resume.

All nine of those All-Stars are back as are Ramos, LaRoche, Rendon, Espinosa, Span and Detwiler. Washington’s only major newcomers are right hander Doug Fister, left handed reliever Jerry Blevins and backup outfielder Nate McLouth. So the Nats certainly haven’t wiped the slate clean as they begin their first exhibition season under new manager Matt Williams on Friday against the Mets. The same teams will meet in the season opener in New York on Mar. 31.

Over the next four-plus weeks, Williams – who has never managed above Class AA but was a five-time All-Star during his 17 big league seasons — doesn’t have many decisions to make, barring injuries.

Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Strasburg and Fister will be in the rotation. Soriano should remain the closer with Clippard, Blevins and probably fellow former closer Drew Storen as set-up men. Craig Stammen should be the prime long reliever. Fifth starter is the only major question with the 27-year-old Detwiler and Tanner Roark, a pleasant surprise in his 2013 debut at age 26, the leading candidates.

Ramos, LaRoche, Desmond and Zimmerman have their spots with Rendon trying to keep the second base job he inherited when the banged-up Espinosa nosedived last season. The only thing that could change around the infield is a disastrous spring from LaRoche and a superb one from Espinosa which could move Zimmerman from third to first and natural third baseman Rendon from second to third.

Harper, heading into his third season at 21, the speedy Span and 34-year-old team leader Werth are the starting outfielders. McLouth is the preferred first man off the bench, but there’s no plan for a platoon.

All of that stability should allow Williams, who’s more of a taskmaster than the 70-year-old Johnson was, to keep doing what he has been doing since the pitchers and catchers reported to Viera, Fla. two weeks ago: getting the Nats to focus on the fundamentals they lost sight of after being anointed the World Series favorites last winter.

Williams doesn’t have the pressure of Johnson’s self-inflicted “World Series Or Bust” proclamation and is blessed with the same loaded pitching staff and under-30 standouts Harper, Desmond (28) and Zimmerman (29).

If Ramos can stay healthy for a full season, the 34-year-old LaRoche can recover some of the form that made him a star in 2012 and either Rendon or Espinosa produces at second base, Washington might have the fewest holes of any potential NL contender. However, more might be expected of defending champion St. Louis, free-spending Los Angeles and maybe even the Braves, 2012 World Series winner San Francisco, ever-formidable Cincinnati and on-the-rise Pittsburgh.

Williams is fortunate to take over a talented ballclub that has yet to prove itself when it matters. If his hard-nosed attitude (or is that Mattitude?) puts the Nats over the top, he’ll be beloved in Washington before he even knows his way around the Beltway.

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.

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