The game isn't played on paper, but s the Washington Nationals are likely be the favorites to win the National League East and one of the top choices to win the World Series. They made the postseason this past season and have made some improvements to their pitching staff and to their outfield.
The one major loss -- Michael Morse, who was traded to Seattle earlier this week -- will be replaced offensively by Denard Span who will also give good defensive value at one of the most important positions in center field. Everyone else returns, and the club is likely to get a production boost from a healthy Jayson Werth, who played in just 81 games in 2012, and Wilson Ramos, who managed just 25 games played. The club will also have Kurt Suzuki for a full year and the further development of phenom Bryce Harper could be the biggest addition.
Ian Desmond may have been the most improved player in baseball last season, both offensively and defensively and there's little reason to believe he's going to take a step back, and second baseman Danny Espinosa is capable of more than the .247/.315/.402 triple-slash he put together.
The bench is strong with Tyler Moore providing punch, Stephen Lombardozzi serving as a solid utility option. Mark DeRosa could be re-signed to give depth at third base and Roger Bernadina is a fine fourth outfielder coming off a very solid year at the plate.
The Nationals had one of the better pitching staffs in baseball in 2012 and it's likely to be better this coming season. The club filled the hole created by Edwin Jackson's free agent departure by signing Dan Haren, Ross Detwiler is another year wiser and ready to produce at the back end and Stephen Strasburg is likely to get to and possibly exceed 200 innings after having his season cut short for the sake of precaution a year ago.
Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard return to anchor the bullpen, but GM Mike Rizzo went out and added closer Rafael Soriano on a two-year deal, potentially creating a lot of six-inning ballgames. If the Nationals have one weakness as of now it's the lack of left-handed relief after Sean Burnett left to sign with the Los Angeles Angels. The free agent market is just about dry in that regard, but some intriguing names could surface for Washington, including Rafael Perez, Pedro Feliciano and J.C. Romero. Bill Bray is among the non-roster invitees that could make the club out of spring training.
So, let's recap: The offense, which ranked No. 5 in the National League in runs scored last season, is likely to be better, perhaps significantly, the outfield defense will get a boost from Span, the bench remains strong, the rotation is at least as good, maybe better than a year ago and the bullpen is once again going to be a major strength.
Yes, the Washington Nationals have a terrific team that could actually improve on the 98-win mark they reached in 2012, and are equipped to succeed in the postseason thanks to pitching, power hitting and good team defense. Rizzo's job to continue to improve may be restricted by where they start in terms of roster makeup, but a lefty reliever and perhaps a long-term upgrade at second base could be all that's left.
It'd be a surprise if the Nationals didn't win 95 games or more in 2013, at least judging by what they look like on paper. Few clubs can challenge them in that regard, though the Los Angeles Dodgers are certainly trying.