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Nationals have what they need to retain division title

Nationals have what they need to retain division title

Nationals have what they need to retain division title
WASHINGTON -- Manager Davey Johnson has been at it again. Almost a year after predicting that his team would win the National League East, he was bold during the last month's Winter Meetings, saying that he wants a World Series title with the Nats before he retires after the 2013 season.

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Johnson has reasons to be positive about his team. He has five starting pitchers -- Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren -- who can blow away hitters almost every night.

The offense isn't bad, either. The Nationals have a new leadoff hitter in Denard Span, setting the stage for run-producers Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth.

Although Johnson is optimistic, the Nationals do enter a new year with their share of questions:

Do the Nationals still have offseason needs?
The answer is yes: a left-handed reliever. They have an interest in free agent J.P. Howell, but it's doubtful they will offer a multiyear deal. Johnson would also like to bring back infielder Mark DeRosa for his bench, but general manager Mike Rizzo appears to be set with what he has.

Who will be the No 1. catcher?
Entering Spring Training, it's going to be Kurt Suzuki, who will become a free agent after the '13 season. Wilson Ramos is the catcher of the future, but the team will start him slowly after he sustained a devastating injury to his right knee last May.

Will the Nationals trade Michael Morse?
It depends on whether they sign Adam LaRoche. If they do, the answer is yes. They Nationals would want pitching prospects in return, and some believe the Rays would be a good trade partner. Even if they don't sign LaRoche, the Nats could still deal Morse and let Tyler Moore become the everyday first baseman.

Will the Nats re-sign LaRoche?
The two parties are still not close to a deal. LaRoche has not changed his stance as far as what he wants. He is seeking three years, but the Nationals are offering no more than two. After the Winter Meetings ended, the Nats were confident that they would re-sign LaRoche. It appears that other teams are not willing to lose a Draft pick for him.

Who will be the starting second baseman?
Johnson gave Danny Espinosa a vote of confidence during the Winter Meetings, believing he will have a strong 2013. Johnson believes that vote of confidence will help Espinosa the way it did Ian Desmond, who had his best season in 2012. An excellent fielder, the switch-hitting Espinosa knows he has to improve from the left side of the plate.

Can the Nationals win the World Series?
The Nationals have what they need to win their second division title -- it helps that they signed Haren and acquired Span in a trade -- but it's up in the air if they are a World Series championship team. You can't underestimate the Giants, who won two of the last three World Series. The Dodgers and Angels made significant improvements by signing Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, respectively.

Will Strasburg pitch a full season?
For the first time in his career, yes. No longer on an innings limit after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Strasburg is expected to pitch 200 innings and be the dominant pitcher he was last season. He pitched in 28 games in 2012 and had a 15-6 record and 3.16 ERA, with 197 strikeouts.

What is the future for Christian Garcia?
Johnson would like to see Garcia be one of his starters, but he'll start the season out of the bullpen, likely pitching in the sixth and seventh innings. Garcia, who started his pro career as a starter, was impressive in relief, with a 2.13 ERA in 13 games last year.

Is Johnson a Hall of Famer as a manager?
There is a no question about it. With the exception of the Dodgers, he has taken every club he has managed -- the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Nationals -- to the postseason. As skipper of the Nationals, he has instilled confidence in his players, and it shows.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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