Starting pitching should once again be one of the major strengths of the Washington Nationals entering the 2014 season, especially if general manager Mike Rizzo can pull the trigger to add another arm for the top of the rotation.
Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are locks as next year's starters, with Ross Detwiler and Taylor Jordan in position to possibly grab one of the spots if they can stay healthy. That leaves Washington some flexibility to add another starter via a trade or free-agent signing.
"We have a chance to win if we do things right," Nationals manager Matt Williams said. "This is a very talented group of young men. We're going to refine some things and take those next steps that we need to take to get to where we need to go."
Zimmermann established himself as the ace of the 2013 staff, going 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA during 32 starts. He tied Adam Wainwright of St. Louis for the National League lead in wins and finished with two shutouts.
Although the 27-year-old Zimmermann is under contract until 2015, the Nationals may try to sign him to an extension. That deal could possibly get done before Opening Day.
Strasburg appears to have fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2011. He went 8-9 in 2013 and was tied for eighth in the National League with a 3.00 ERA. Strasburg underwent arthroscopic surgery after the season to remove bone chips from his right elbow, but all indications are that he will be ready for spring training.
The challenge for Strasburg in 2014 will be overcoming the tightness in his forearm, which forced him to miss two starts in September. When healthy, Strasburg proved he can still be one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball.
Gonzalez, who also started 32 games, struggled with his control during the 2013 season. He walked 76 batters, tied for the fourth-highest total in the National League. Gonzalez finished the season at 11-8 with a 3.36 ERA. He led the Washington staff with 192 strikeouts, one ahead of Strasburg.
Detwiler struggled with back issues last season and pitched in 13 games, finishing 2-7 with a 4.04 ERA. Although Detwiler could come back healthy, there is speculation that the Nationals could use him as a trade chip for another starter.
Jordan, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011, appeared in nine games in 2013, finishing 1-3 with a 3.66 ERA. But he showed potential to be a major contributor.
Dan Haren, who went 10-14 with a 4.67 ERA as a starter during the 2013 season, is a free agent after the club chose not to issue him a qualifying offer. He struggled with his mechanics for parts of the 2013 season, and a change of scenery might be effective for him.
This means that one of the most intriguing storylines of the offseason will be whom the Nationals might pursue for the rotation. There has been speculation they might try to trade for Tigers righty Max Scherzer, who went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA. Scherzer could give Washington the top rotation in the major leagues. But the price for Scherzer could be steep, and the Nationals would need to mull how much they are willing to give up in terms of prospects that are ready to play at the major league level.
Rays pitcher David Price has also been mentioned as a possible trade target for Washington. Price has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the major leagues for the past several seasons. He finished the 2013 campaign 10-8 with a 3.33 ERA and led Tampa Bay to the playoffs. The Nationals would also likely have to part with blue-chip prospects to attain Price, who is eligible for arbitration.
Other potential targets reportedly include Cubs righty Jeff Samardzija, who might not be as costly as Scherzer and Price. Samardzija finished the 2013 season 8-13 with a 4.34 ERA.
Tim Hudson has also been mentioned as a possible good fit for the Nationals after not receiving a qualifying offer from the Braves. Hudson would give Washington another veteran presence that is familiar with the dynamics of the National League East. Hudson went 8-7 with a 3.97 ERA in 2013.
But the focus this winter will be on Scherzer and Price, and whether the Nationals are willing to pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal.