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Nats aim for return to top of NL East

Washington adds Corbin to rotation, turns to young core in lineup
@JamalCollier
March 25, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- No one at Nationals camp wanted to talk about a closing window. And why should they? Take a look around at the talent still remaining even after Bryce Harper left in free agency to sign with a division rival: A starting rotation led by Max

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- No one at Nationals camp wanted to talk about a closing window. And why should they?

Take a look around at the talent still remaining even after Bryce Harper left in free agency to sign with a division rival: A starting rotation led by Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin with a bullpen anchored by Sean Doolittle. A young position-player core featuring Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Victor Robles.

And general manager Mike Rizzo did his best to prop that window open by adding eight new players to remake the roster this past offseason, headlined by Corbin. Even after losing their best hitter, these Nationals still project as one of the favorites in a crowded race to the top of the National League East.

"No we don't think in [windows], but we have to answer all those questions because they're on most every website," Rizzo said. "It's not only us, windows are a part of the vernacular now, but we plan on these long-term projections on who we're going to have down the road. We've got a five-year plan."

What's the goal?
To win the World Series. The Nationals want to prove 2018 was a blip on the radar after missing the postseason for the first time since '15. Building a sustained winner is tough, but few teams have been as successful during the regular season as the Nationals have recently as winners of four NL East titles since '12. Washington is well aware the competition within the division will be much stiffer, with the Braves, Phillies and Mets all making huge additions of their own during the offseason. Still, the Nationals intend to return to the top of the NL East, get another shot at getting over the hump in the NL Division Series and make a run deep into the postseason.

What's the plan?
Starting pitching has been the backbone of this organization for years, and the Nats hope their pitching will carry them into October once again. The starting lineup should still be very good, with a deep bench to back them up, and the back end of the bullpen should be shored up with Doolittle and Trevor Rosenthal. But the Nats plan to lean heavily on their starting pitching, anchored by the trio of Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin, with Aníbal Sánchez and Jeremy Hellickson rounding a rotation that needs to remain healthy.

What could go wrong?
Rizzo says every year he aims to build a team capable of winning about 90 games, and if everything goes right, it might reach 95 and beyond, and if things go south, that number might drop to about 85. The Nationals believe the depth they added should raise their projected floor, but they are going to rely on their top five -- or six, when including Joe Ross -- starting pitchers. After that, the Nats' rotation depth thins out pretty quickly.

There are also quite a few uncertainties in the bullpen beyond Doolittle and Rosenthal, who has been throwing in the upper 90s all spring and even touched 100, but is also coming off Tommy John surgery and missed all of last season.

The Nationals also know they might not be able to endure a slow start considering the Phillies, Braves and Mets are all in win-now mode. One of four NL East contenders is going to finish in fourth or fifth place -- a huge letdown considering preseason expectations.

Who might surprise?
Nationals fans have seem glimpses over the past two seasons, but injuries have robbed Washington from truly seeing how much of an impact Adam Eaton can have on the Nationals at the top of the lineup. Finally healthy and without restrictions during Spring Training, Eaton batted .324 with a 1.163 OPS this spring with eight of his 12 hits going for extra bases.

The sample has been limited through two seasons in D.C., but here is Eaton's production in 477 at-bats: .300/.394/.422. And now he's back in right field, which has always been his best position defensively. That is what Washington has been missing while Eaton has spent so much time on the injured list and what might one of their biggest additions of the winter.

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.