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Nats enter new year with new skipper, renewed hope

First-time manager Williams eyes improved defense; Fister strengthens rotation

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals have made significant improvements this offseason, trading for right-hander Doug Fister and left-hander Jerry Blevins as well as signing free-agent outfielder Nate McLouth to a two-year deal.

After Davey Johnson retired, the Nats also added a new manager to the fold, hiring Matt Williams.

This past season, the Nationals -- preseason favorites to win the National League East for the second straight year -- finished 10 games behind the Braves and didn't make the playoffs. It didn't take Williams long to figure out what the Nats need to do to get better in 2014.

"One, we have to be better than 13th in the league in defense," Williams said. "We have the ability to be better than that, much better than that. … There's a lot of factors that go into that, of course, but it's something that we want to put an emphasis on. We want to get to [Spring Training] and say, 'Here's the plan, let's try to go execute that plan.'

"Offensive efficiency has been talked about a million times, but it's true. [Hitting coach] Rick Schu is very in tune with that, and he's excited to get back to Spring Training. He had half a year with these guys, and they made great improvement. But he's excited about that prospect, and scoring some more runs."

But there are questions regarding the Nationals. Here are six that stand out as the calendar flips to 2014.

1. Are the Nationals the best team in the NL East?
No question about it. General manager Mike Rizzo improved the starting staff by acquiring Fister from the Tigers. He joins a rotation the includes Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. The team improved the bullpen by trading for Blevins. Washington desperately needed a lefty reliever who could get consistent outs.

The starting lineup remains the same. However, the Nationals hope it can be consistent all season. The offense was one of the reasons the Nats struggled during the first half of 2013, and they replaced Rick Eckstein with Schu in July.

The Phillies, Mets and Marlins have made their share of moves this offseason -- but not enough to overtake the Nationals. The Braves haven't done anything of significance to improve, and they lost Brian McCann and Tim Hudson in free agency.

2. Who will be the fifth starter in the rotation?
Tanner Roark is the favorite entering 2014 because of the success he had during the last two months of the 2013 season. But you can't rule out Taylor Jordan or Ross Detwiler, who seems destined for the bullpen.

Jordan, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011, combined for 142 innings, 10 wins and a 1.96 ERA in the Major and Minor Leagues this past season. Detwiler missed much of the 2013 season because of back issues.

3. Who will be the backup catcher?
It's anybody's guess. The Nationals want a catcher who can play every day in case Wilson Ramos misses a significant amount of playing time because of injuries. The team is not confident in Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano as backups. It didn't help that both players are coming off disappointing seasons with the bat.

The Nats recently agreed to a Minor League deal with Chris Snyder, who can provide power. John Buck is available, but things have been quiet for quite some time regarding him.

4. Can Bryce Harper stay healthy?
As of now, Harper will be 100 percent entering Spring Training. It helped that he underwent successful surgery to repair the bursa in his left knee. Harper hurt the knee on May 13, when he slammed into the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium.

Harper's injuries were caused by the fact he goes all out. One can never question his hustle. Though Harper likely will continue to play hard, he needs to be careful when approaching the wall to avoid further injury. He has a chance to be the best player on the team.

5. Will Williams have success as a manager?
The answer is yes. Rizzo handed him the best pitching staff in the division. It helped that Rizzo traded for Fister in December. Williams hopes the team can stay healthy the entire season -- Harper, Jayson Werth and Ramos missed significant time because of injuries.

The bench has improved dramatically with the addition of McLouth, but Rizzo is still not done improving the bench. They could be looking for a backup infielder and catcher.

Williams says he expects to be an aggressive manager. For example, if the opposing catcher is slow at the plate, the Nationals are expected to run. Williams also wants to put players in motion to hit and run.

6. Who is going to be the everyday second baseman for the Nationals?
Rizzo said Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa will battle for the job, but one has to assume that Rendon is the favorite because he did an above-average job transitioning from third base. He also wasn't bad with the bat either, driving in 35 runs in 98 games.

As for Espinosa, he is coming off his worst season in professional baseball. He was sent to the Minor Leagues in June and never returned to the big leagues because of problems at the plate. Espinosa struck out a combined 148 times in 471 at-bats for the Nats and Triple-A Syracuse.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats.

Washington Nationals, Jerry Blevins, Ross Detwiler, Danny Espinosa, Doug Fister, Bryce Harper, Taylor Jordan, Nate McLouth, Anthony Rendon, Tanner Roark, Stephen Strasburg