What could go wrong for the Nationals?

In today’s Post, Boz describes the attitude he found within the Nationals clubhouse and embodied by, off all people, modest Ryan Zimmerman: openly brash, if not cocky, about the talent in the room and their chances this season.

They’re not alone. The Nationals, of course, have been hailed as one of the consensus World Series favorites. Earlier this month on ESPN’s HotSpot blog, David Schoenfield even made the case for the Nationals as a potentially historic team. Only five teams have won at least 105 games over the past 20 years, and Schoenfield compared the Nationals to them and found enough similarities to conclude they have a real shot of becoming No. 6.

It’s hard to argue that the Nationals can’t reach those heights. At this point of the year all we have is a range of possibilities. The Nationals’ ceiling, if all breaks right, is to rank with some of the best teams in recent memory. What about the other extreme? What would have to happen for the Nationals to not only fall short of history, but also sink out of contention?

As strong as the Nationals appear on paper, two potential problems, or the combination of them, could lead to a letdown.

1. Starting rotation injuries

The Nationals received 150 starts last season from their best five starters, even with voluntarily yanking Stephen Strasburg out of the rotation. Based purely on league-wide trends for how pitchers stay healthy, they will be hard-pressed to stave off attrition so efficiently in 2013.

The Nationals’ success in 2012, more than any other factor, was predicated on their rotation, especially leaning on Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Ross Detwiler figures to improve with another year under his belt, and if Dan Haren puts last year behind him, he would be an upgrade over Edwin Jackson.

But for the rotation to work, they have to stay healthy. The Nationals have prepared for injury by retaining Zach Duke and signing Chris Young to a minor league deal, which he can opt out of Sunday. But no matter who serves as their sixth starter, he would be, on paper, a significant downgrade over an extended period of time. That’s just how good the Nationals’ rotation is.

2. Regression

For all the bad luck with injuries the Nationals endured with their position players last season, they also had the good fortune of receiving multiple career years. Ian Desmond far outplayed his previous personal standard in every regard. At 32, Adam LaRoche set a career high in homers and punched up his best OPS+ since 2006. Even role players surprised – Craig Stammen, for one, often became a multi-inning monster out of the bullpen.

Even players who didn’t set career marks had seasons that will be difficult to reproduce. Chad Tracy came back from Japan and anchored an excellent bench. Jayson Werth missed three months, but when he played he was one of the toughest outs in the league – and his .387 on-base percentage was 25 points above his career average. Once Ryan Zimmerman stabilized his shoulder with a cortisone shot, he hit like an MVP for three months. All of those players, and others, could have very good seasons and still not match their 2012 production.

The chance for regression by some players may well be offset by the chance for improvement by others. Bryce Harper figures to make a leap in his second season. Danny Espinosa is at the same career juncture as Desmond was last year, right before he became an all-star. Zimmerman wasn’t healthy last season and is still just 28. Desmond, only 27, may have just started to ride the upward arc of his career.

Based solely on age, the Nationals’ two most likely regression candidates are LaRoche and Werth. LaRoche’s best skills, plate discipline and power, should age well for a player with his body type, but he has still left the years considered to be a player’s peak behind. Werth is 34 and creeping up on what historically has constituted a player’s decline phase – he would have to buck a well-established baseball trend to match his excellent half season in 2012 over a full season in 2013. That’s not to say he can’t do it; Werth has already had a unique, late-blooming career arc, and injuries early in his career saved him from multiple seasons worth of wear and tear. But it would be a rare feat.

After watching LaRoche carry the Nationals’ offense for stretches and seeing Werth rake down the stretch, it’s pretty hard to envision either backsliding significantly. At the same time, given what the history of baseball has taught us about how players age, it is a possibility that can’t be ignored.

Again, it’s not that any Nationals players seem to be overt risks of producing bad seasons. Many will just be challenged to repeat what they did last season, and if a handful of players are only a little worse, it will add up and start chipping away at their 98-win total from last year – especially if a starter or two goes down, a menace most every team deals with.

It seems more likely the Nationals produce an all-time great team than an expectations-defying dud. The likeliest result, naturally, lies somewhere in the middle, a team that wins between 90 and 100 games and reaches the postseason for the second straight year. When that’s the rough average two weeks from opening day, there is a fascinating season ahead.

FROM THE POST

The Nationals are so confident, it’s even showing in Ryan Zimmerman, Boz writes.

James Wagner examines how the Nationals take care of their equipment. Really fun story.

Boz is chatting today.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Garcia needs more rest

Solano plays left

Detwiler strong after layoff

Storen on over-thinking

TODAY’S GAME

The Nationals host the Tigers at 1:05 p.m. Jordan Zimmermann will start. There hasn’t been a lineup posted, but Davey Johnson has said he plans to play his starters heavily this week. Also, the Nationals are expected to make another round of cuts today.

DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY

14

PREDICTIONS YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT

I’ve already changed my mind from the Final Four picks I made in the paper. Think I’m settled on Miami over Louisville, with VCU and New Mexico also in the Final Four.

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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James Wagner · March 17, 2013