Nationals Opening Day

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

A whole lot has to go right for an organization to go from laughingstock to legitimate World Series contender in four years. But that's exactly where the Nationals are as the 2013 season begins Monday afternoon against the Miami Marlins. With a balanced lineup, a loaded rotation and a solid bullpen and bench, there aren't many weaknesses here.

ROTATION

This is one of the best starting groups in the majors. Stephen Strasburg (3.16 ERA) is healthy and will not be on a strict innings limit this season. The controversy of his early shutdown last season is thankfully in the past. Few pitchers possess Strasburg's combination of power and precision, and he is among the favorites to win the NL Cy Young Award. Teammate Gio Gonzalez (2.89 ERA) finished third in the voting last season, his first with the club, and is poised for another banner season. The lefty features one of the game's nastiest curveballs. The often-overlooked Jordan Zimmermann (2.94 ERA) took another step forward in 2012 and was the staff's most consistent pitcher. Ross Detwiler (3.40 ERA) had a breakthrough year and remained healthy enough to make 27 starts, up from his previous high of 14. And the Nats exchanged free agent Edwin Jackson for Dan Haren, a fifth starter in name only.

BULLPEN

Marlins at Nationals
Ricky Nolasco vs. Stephen Strasburg
When » Monday, 1:05 p.m.
Where » Nationals Park
TV » MASN, Ch. 9

Matchups? The Nats don't care about matchups. There is one left-handed reliever in the bullpen -- long man Zach Duke. Otherwise Washington has decided its right-handed options can get the job done against lefty batters late in games. So Henry Rodriguez -- control problems and all -- makes the team as another power arm. Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard are formidable setup men for new closer Rafael Soriano, who had 42 saves for the Yankees last season. Any of the three can finish games, however. Storen had 43 saves in 2011 and Clippard had 32 last season. Soriano's presence should help keep both men fresher later into this season. Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus are back again in middle relief. Both men fared well in that role in 2012. Recall options at Syracuse include Nathan Karns, Ryan Perry and Cole Kimball. Bill Bray and J.C. Romero are the left-handed options at Syracuse.

BENCH

There's nothing new here. The same five players who were on the bench for most of last season return intact. Roger Bernadina is again the fourth outfielder capable of filling in as a starter if Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper or Denard Span is injured. Few players in the majors cover more ground defensively. Bernadina also posted a career year at the plate in 2012 with a .777 OPS and big jumps in on-base percentage and power. Tyler Moore is the right-handed slugger off the bench. He apprenticed as a pinch hitter last summer and hit 10 homers in 156 at-bats. Chad Tracy returns as the veteran left-handed bat. When healthy, he was one of the sport's best pinch hitters last season. Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki are essentially co-catchers. The Nats are comfortable with either player in the lineup. The versatile Steve Lombardozzi can and will play third base, shortstop, second base and left field.

Five to watch

Dan Haren

Haren is easily the old man of the starting rotation at 32. A chronic hip condition contributed to a stint on the disabled list last summer with the Los Angeles Angels. But Haren says he has pitched with that throughout his career, and before 2012 he had topped 200 innings seven times in a row.

Danny Espinosa

He's another injury watch candidate. Espinosa unknowingly played through a rotator cuff tear in his left shoulder last year, and the second baseman opted against surgery in the offseason. He had a nice spring, so a strengthening program appears to have worked. But will it hold up all season?

Denard Span

Span is the leadoff batter and center fielder the Nats have been searching for. Acquired in a trade with Minnesota, Span can get on base and provides added speed. He, too, needs to stay healthy, though. Concussion issues kept Span to 70 games in 2011, and he appeared in 128 last year.

Wilson Ramos

Ramos tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee blocking a pitch May 12. Washington eventually acquired veteran Kurt Suzuki, but Ramos remains its catcher of the future and is ready to start the season on time. He hit 15 home runs in 389 at-bats in 2011.

Henry Rodriguez

Few players in the majors are more confounding. Rodriguez has a powerful right arm, but control problems always have prevented him from harnessing its full potential. Returning from elbow surgery, he looked shaky this spring, too. But his potential is so great that he will begin 2013 back in the bullpen.

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner