Fans in the nation's capital are feeling a sentiment they haven't experienced in a while -- being spoiled.
The Nationals and Redskins both clinched playoff berths during the 2012 season, which is the first time that's happened in the same season.
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For the Nationals, it was the second time in franchise history (formerly the Montreal Expos) -- and first time since they moved to Washington, D.C. -- that they made the playoffs. The Nationals also took the NL East crown for just the second time in franchise history before losing to St. Louis in five games in the NLDS.
Nationals' fans and baseball pundits everywhere will forever be playing out the "what if" scenario had general manager Mike Rizzo chosen not to shutdown ace hurler Stephen Strasburg after throwing 159 1/3 innings to protect his arm following Tommy John surgery in 2010.
Washington's offense shouldn't be discredited for its 2012 surge. The Nationals ranked 10th in runs per game (4.51), eighth in homers (194), sixth in slugging percentage (.428) and eighth in OPS (.750). But last season's breakout from middle-of-the-pack team in 2011 to World Series contender was because of the development of the pitching staff.
According to Baseball Reference, the Nationals had the youngest average age of pitchers -- including relievers -- in the majors at 27. The youthful pitching staff tied for second in ERA (3.34), tied for fourth in saves (51), tied for second in hits per nine innings (7.9), third in runs per game allowed (3.67), second in WHIP (1.22) and sixth in strikeouts per nine innings (8.1).
The Nationals were set to return a very good core of pitchers in 2013, which included Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Gio Gonzalez -- who finished third in the NL Cy Young race after winning a major-league best 21 games -- but that didn't stop Rizzo from bolstering the pitching staff in the offseason.
Rizzo brought back Dan Haren to the Senior Circuit, who finished fifth in the NL Cy Young race in 2009, and shockingly signed closer Rafael Soriano in January, despite having Storen and Clippard under contract. While Soriano is technically the closer and recommended target for Fantasy owners on Draft Day, manager Davey Johnson has said he will use his relievers in the ninth inning the way he feels best suits the team.
The Nationals parted ways with slugger Michael Morse, who had a .296 average, .345 on-base percentage, .516 slugging percentage and .861 OPS since the start of the 2010 season, but added center fielder Denard Span, who is expected to be a stabilizing presence atop the lineup.
The culture in Washington is developing into a winning one, which not only has Nationals' fans excited about the team's outlook, but Fantasy owners too, who will be picking over the Nationals' roster this spring looking to add integral pieces in their own quest for a championship.
Breakout ... Bryce Harper, outfield
Harper was supposed to be baseball's next great phenom, but the Angels' Mike Trout stole Harper's thunder in 2012. While Trout posted insane numbers and made highlight reel plays seemingly every day, Harper's accomplishments were nothing to scoff at. He took home NL rookie of the year honors while hitting .270 with a .340 on-base percentage, .477 slugging percentage and .817 OPS. Harper was particularly productive down the stretch, posting a .327/.384/.660/1.045 line in his final 44 games, which was accompanied by 26 extra-base hits (12 homers), 27 RBI and 37 runs. If you lose out on drafting Trout in the first round, Harper will turn into a nice consolation prize to be drafted in the rounds to follow.
Bust ... Gio Gonzalez, starting pitcher
The Nationals gave up a ton of high-end prospects in December 2011 to acquire Gonzalez from the A's, and the left-handed hurler didn't disappoint in his first year with Washington. He is coming off a career campaign, and it's going to be tough for Gonzalez to meet the lofty expectations he set forth last season. Granted, Gonzalez's numbers weren't too far off from what he accomplished the previous two seasons in Oakland, but Gonzalez benefited last season from low home run and hit rates, which we feel will rise in 2013. Fantasy owners should refrain from viewing Gonzalez as your ace hurler and draft him more as your second-best pitcher.
Injury-Risk Sleeper ... Dan Haren, starting pitcher
Haren had an off year last season, finishing with a losing record for the first time since his rookie year in 2003 and had his ERA jump more than a point. The biggest reason for Haren's quick demise was his balky back, which will remain a cause for concern heading into 2013. Another concern for Fantasy owners is Haren's drop in velocity. According to TexasLeaguers.com, Haren's fastball velocity ranged from 84-88 mph last season after ranging from 85-90 in 2011. Still, there's value here for Fantasy owners at the right price. In case you missed it, Haren finished last season with a 4-3 record, 2.81 ERA and 41 strikeouts in his final eight starts. If Haren's healthy and pitches like he did down the stretch in 2012, this season could be a bounce-back year.
The Nationals are set at third base for years to come after signing Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term deal, but Washington still has great organizational depth at third base, led by prospects Anthony Rendon and Matt Skole. Rendon, who was the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, and Skole, who belted 27 homers last season, will likely have to learn new positions if they want to make it to the majors with the Nationals. But worse comes to worse the Nationals have some pretty good trade chips ... A.J. Cole's head must be spinning trying to figure out what the Nationals think of him. Cole was dealt to Oakland as part of the Gio Gonzalez trade in December 2011, but he's now back with Washington as part of the three-team trade that sent Michael Morse to Seattle and is once again considered one of Washington's top pitching prospects ... The Nationals obviously don't need rotation help, so Cole will get time to develop, but two other names to keep tabs on in long-term keeper leagues are Nathan Karns and Sammy Solis, who both could star in the rotation at Double-A Harrisburg this season. Solis is a name you might have heard of because of his prospect pedigree (second-round pick in 2010), but Karns is the underdog story here. A 12th-round pick in 2009, Karns missed the 2010 season after suffering a torn labrum in his shoulder, which is usually a devastating injury for a pitcher. But since making his pro debut in 2011, Karns is 14-6 with a 2.21 ERA and 1.05 WHIP. Fantasy owners will also love Karns' strikeout rate of 10.9 batters per nine innings ... Outfielder Brian Goodwin, who was a 2011 supplemental first-round pick, is considered a five-tool player, but he had some struggles at Double-A last season, so it might be a few years until he makes a Fantasy impact.
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