Yesterday, I wrote about the Orioles' offseason moves that helped their ascension to the top of the AL East. The Nationals, another team in the Beltway area, are also the likely winner of their respective division. Sitting at 79-59, seven games ahead of the Atlanta Braves, the Nationals are hoping to have better luck advancing in the playoffs after an unfortunate end to their first ever postseason appearance back in 2012.
The 2013 Washington Nationals finished with a 86-76 record. So far in 2014, they have a .572 winning percentage, which would be around 93 wins in 162 game projection. To show such improvement, one could guess that the team made several transactions over the winter to stock up on areas that needed aid. Here's a list of significant moves that definitely helped the 2014 Washington Nationals be a better team than last year.
1. Traded for Doug Fister to the Detroit Tigers for Ian Krol, Steve Lombardozzi, and Robbie Ray
End list. Their second-biggest move of the offseason (cost-wise), the signing of outfielder Nate McLouth to a two-year, $10.8 million deal, has not worked out well (-0.6 fWAR in 162 plate appearances). Two other acquisitions - trading for catcher Jose Lobaton and reliever Jerry Blevins - have remained on their ML roster, but neither of them have brought much impact.
The 2013 team was not horrible. Their starting pitching was considered top notch with the likes of Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Dan Haren and interesting names like Tanner Roark and Ross Ohlendorf contributing towards the end of the season. Hitting was middle-of-the-road - their 19.4 positional fWAR was eighth in National Leagues. While outfielders Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and shortstop Ian Desmond all had one of the best offensive seasons of their career, the rest of the lineup did not contribute much.
This season, the Nationals' offense is not without a rough patch or two. Bryce Harper, still only 21 years old, has had an injury-plagued season and the fans may have to wait another season to view his ultimate breakout. Ryan Zimmerman, likewise, has played just 53 games.
However, besides those two flaws, the offense took an overall step ahead. Anthony Rendon, the team's first-round pick back in 2011, has blossomed as an All-Star caliber player, putting up 4.9 fWAR with a 122 wRC+ so far. Werth, who got off to a slow start, has found his hitting groove to a tune of 137 wRC+. The team overall still does not have the top-notch bat (98 team wRC+, 12th in Major Leagues) this season, but it isn't without promise for the future.
As for their pitching, even before the inclusion of Doug Fister, the Nationals' rotation had a reputation of being quite solid. Still, the trade likely propelled them into an elite tier, as they have the best pitching fWAR in Major League Baseball (18.2). Jordan Zimmerman has been a consistent 3+ fWAR pitcher since 2011. Strasburg, despite being a bit more prone to gopher balls in 2014, still has a 3.12 FIP with an awesome 10.33 K/9 to 1.97 BB/9. Tanner Roark, who had an auspicious Major League debut stretch in 2013, proved the worthiness to stay in the rotation. Even with Gio Gonzalez not having the best year of his career (2.1 fWAR would be his lowest since 2009 season), the Nats' rotation still possesses three pitchers with top-of-the-rotation caliber performance
The Nationals were a talented team that had some rough luck with injuries and offensive slumps in 2013. They have had better luck in 2014 with their roster, and have thus staked out a large lead in the NL East. The front office was aware of the talent that the team contained, and kept it intact. That decision appears to have worked out just fine.