“The truth is you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. Life is a crazy ride, and nothing is guaranteed.”

This could be the mantra for this year’s Washington Nationals.

What a difference a year makes. Going into last season, we all knew they were going to shut down pitching sensation Stephen Strasburg in September. We also knew there was a possible Bryce Harper call-up from the minor league in September, and there were genuine hopes of competing for a wild card berth towards the end of the season.

What we did get was the best season any Nats fan could have asked for with 97 Wins and the best record in the sport. Ace pitcher Gio Gonzales won more than 20 games and finished second in the Cy Young award race, and Davey Johnson won manager of the year; Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond had career seasons while winning silver slugger awards and the team won its first National League East Division title in franchise history.

The season ended in heartbreak with a Game 5 – ninth inning debacle of a loss that hopefully fuels this year’s team for the extended playoff run that most prognosticators envision.

General Manager Mike Rizzo has put together what renowned baseball writer Peter Gammons has called on the MLB Network a “Super Power for years to come”; Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine have the Nats as the World Series champion in their respective preseason predictions, and there is a fervor never seen in D.C. for this team and rightfully so because the Nats are loaded in almost every aspect of the game.

One position of need Rizzo fixed in the offseason was acquiring a slick fielding leadoff guy to play center field in Denard Span, formerly of the Minnesota Twins. His acquisition now moves Game 4 walk-off hero Jayson Werth down to the No. 2 spot in the batting order and moves 2012 rookie of the year Bryce Harper to right field, which will alleviate some pressure from the 20-year old to learn a premium defensive position (although he did very well there last year, obviously).

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hopes to improve on his masterful second half of last year. All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond should also continue to thrive on his success from last year, and with the improvement of defensive dynamo Danny Espinoza along with the newly resigned LaRoche, the infield may be the most balanced unit in the league.

And the catcher platoon of Kurt Suzuki and the return of Jesus Flores shores up that position.

The batting lineup from leadoff to number eight could have five or six guys that hit for 20-plus homeruns. Harper is the crown jewel of the batting lineup and after having possibly the greatest individual season a teenager has ever had in the game, huge numbers are being expected in the area of 30-plus homeruns and 100-plus RBIs (runs batted in).

Harper may not reach those numbers simply because the team is just so stacked with talent, but don’t be surprised if he does. It’s a reason he was drafted No. 1 overall and given the nickname “The Lebron of Baseball.”

2013 = World Series or Bust?
We know, we know. Strasburg was shut down and who knows what could have happened if he pitched in the playoffs. One thing we do know is Ross Detweiler, who took his place in the rotation in the series vs. the St. Louis Cardinals, was by far the best pitcher in the series. Detweiler is expected to improve this season, which means the Nats again will have the best pitching rotation in the sport. The only reason Detweiler isn’t the fourth starter after Edwin Jackson moved on in the offseason is because of the acquisition of veteran starting pitcher Dan Haren to man that spot.

Haren, along with Jordan Zimmerman, Gio and Strasburg, make opposing managers quiver in their boots, as it should.

One portion of the roster that has perennially been the most solid has been the pitching bullpen and this year shouldn’t be any different. When you can toss out names such as Craig Stammen, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and new closer Rafael Soriano to close out games, more times than not, this team is going to win and win big.

Last year, this team was expected to win 81-84 games but this season, the expectations are easily close to the 98 wins of last year, or even eclipsing that mark. Health and expectations will be the key. Last year, the Nats were the hunters but this year they are the hunted.

How will the veterans on the team lead this team full of kids? Will Davey Johnson push the right buttons as manager? Will Drew Storen forget about last season’s last game and remember the form he had in the month of September?

Most baseball experts say yes to all of these questions and predict a division crown and a trip to at least the National League Championship series.

Get ready, D.C. because our Nats will bring home the first major sports championship to the city in more than 22 years!

Let the Natitude officially begin!


Dion Johnson

Special to the AFRO