The Washington Nationals appeared poised for a second straight playoff season in 2013, but instead muddled around .500 most of the year, before an 18-9 September left them four games short of getting into the wild-card play-in game. What happened?
It wasn't the offense, even though they lost Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper for chunks of the season due to injuries. The Nats had five players with 20 or more home runs and were third in the National League with 161. (Of course, home runs aren't the be-all and end-all; the Cubs were second with 172.) They were sixth in the league in runs scored.
It wasn't really the pitching, either; the Nats were sixth in the league in runs allowed.
The thing was, though, neither one of those was dominant. None of the Washington hitters had a truly dominant season, nor did any of the pitchers. They were just... good, but not quite good enough.
Now, it's up to new, and first-time, manager Matt Williams to get this bunch back to where they were in their 98-win season in 2012, the year where they were two outs away from the NLCS against... well, maybe you don't want to hear any more about that. I sure don't.
The Nats return pretty much the same team they had in 2013; the starting eight are intact, as is four-fifths of the rotation. The only significant addition is starter Doug Fister, who was acquired from the Tigers in exchange for what most people described as a few miscellaneous minor leaguers found discarded in a broom closet. Fister has been very good the last three years in Detroit, though his ERA has gone up and ERA+ down each of the last two years. Moving to the National League should be kind to his numbers.
That's really it -- this team should be in contention all year, has a chance to win the N.L. East, and very likely will be one of the wild-card teams. For Cubs fans, Koyie Hill and Mike Fontenot are both in Nats camp as non-roster guys. Hill will likely wind up at Triple-A Syracuse as an injury-protection backup; Fontenot, who played all of 2013 at Triple-A Durham in the Rays organization, has an outside shot at making Washington's 25-man roster, but most probably will end up as Hill's teammate at Syracuse.
And in case you care, here are the all-time standings for the Racing Presidents.
The Cubs and Nats will play their entire season series in an 11-day period in late June and early July. Washington comes to Wrigley June 26-27-28 (with a day/night doubleheader on the 28th), and the Cubs then travel to D.C. over the Independence Day holiday weekend, July 4-5-6 (with the July 4 game scheduled to start at 10 a.m. CT).
For more on the Nationals, please visit Federal Baseball.