Stephen Strasburg has a lot to prove this year, but that's nothing new for either him or his Washington Nationals.
Going into the second week of spring training games, the Nationals remain the most complete team on paper in the National League East, which seems like a bit of an odd statement to make about a team that barely cleared .500 last season and lost the division to the Atlanta Braves by 10 games. But the Nationals' lineup, anchored by Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth -- a guy that a lot of people don't remember put up a .931 OPS in 532 plate appearances last season -- compares favorably not only to Atlanta's, but anyone else's across baseball.
The questions, such as they are, focus almost entirely on the pitching staff. In 2012, the Nationals had one of the best staffs in baseball, allowing the third fewest runs per game behind the Cincinnati Reds and the Tampa Bay Rays. This was due mainly thanks to the efforts of their three best starting pitchers -- Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Strasburg -- who combined for 546.1 innings pitched of 3.03 ERA baseball that season, making them one of the better trios in the sport.
Those three starters were not quite their 2012 selves for the Nationals last season. Instead, they combined for 592 innings of 3.20 ERA baseball, which doesn't seem like that much of a drop -- it's only 27 more runs across 37.2 additional IP, after all -- until taking into consideration that the league ERA dropped from 4.01 in 2012 to 3.87 in 2013. That turns Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gonzalez's collective 132 ERA+ performance in 2012 into a 120 ERA+ performance in 2013. When combined with a bullpen-wide regression in performance, that can help lead to ugly things -- like a plunging run differential and a team most people picked to be in the World Series (myself included) failing to even make the playoffs.
Over the last two years, Strasburg has been the most consistent starter in that Washington rotation, his 3.16 ERA in 159.1 IP in 2012 and his 3.00 ERA in 183 IP in 2013 both grading out to a 126 ERA+ -- 26 percent better than league average, and around 30 percent better than an average starting pitcher (league average starting pitching is a bit worse than average, usually grading out around 94-96 ERA+). He is still a strikeout monster (28.9 percent for his career) but has changed his approach since returning from the Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss almost all of the 2011 season, instead trying to focus on forcing bad contact to get outs on fewer pitches and go deeper into games. His 183 IP last year were the most he'd ever thrown in a season at any level, and given that he threw with discomfort in his elbow for a "good amount" of 2013 according to his agent, it's reasonable to wonder how healthy Strasburg will ever be -- let alone if he'll ever break the 200 IP mark in a single season.
While the Nationals would like to see Strasburg cultivate that sort of health and dependability -- somehow -- they've taken steps to ensure that not all of their eggs rest in that particular basket. Not only is the team returning Zimmermann and Gonzalez this season, but over the winter the Nationals acquired starter Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers in what was most likely the most lopsided deal of the offseason, giving up only utilityman Steve Lombardozzi, reliever Ian Krol and pitching prospect Robbie Ray for one of the best middle-of-the-rotation starters in the game over the past few years. With the development of Anthony Rendon as a major league second baseman and the likelihood that Danny Espinosa would be forced to a bench role to accomodate Rendon's bat, Lombardozzi was already an odd man out for the 2014 roster. Ray, meanwhile, is a prospect who most like, but few as much as the Tigers seem to. Either Detroit's right about Ray and he's got a future that's as bright or brighter than Fister's, or the Tigers got taken for a ride.
The Nationals also hope that Ross Detwiler, one of the longer-tenured members of the current Washington rotation despite being all of 28 years old, will remain healthy for the entire season this year. Detwiler had a great start to the 2013 campaign that was swiftly derailed by injury, and when he returned he was not the pitcher he'd been in the first month of the season. Back when A.J. Burnett was still on the market the Nationals apparently had significant interest in the veteran starter; instead Burnett signed with the Phillies, and the Nationals will have to lean on Detwiler for significant innings in 2014 instead.
In the end, though, the success of Washington's 2014 staff won't come down to Detwiler; it probably won't even come down to Fister. It will come down to Washington's big three pitchers -- Zimmermann, Gonzalez, and Strasburg -- and what they can do on the mound this season. So far, Strasburg looks fine. He threw two innings of shutout ball for the Nationals on Tuesday against the Braves -- a team that he's had problems with in the past, as the Braves' radio crew took special delight in noting -- facing a lineup full of starters. He was throwing in the mid-nineties, which is more than fine for this point in the spring, and generally speaking seemed to be right where he needs to be for the Nationals right now. There's almost no question he'll be ready for the beginning of the season. The question is: What will he and the rest of the Nationals staff do then?