An exciting young core made the Washington Nationals a team to watch for the foreseeable future, but the curve took a sharp turn up last season with a surprise National League East title.
Some key offseason additions have the Nats poised to remain among baseball's elite again in 2013.
After finishing in the bottom of the NL East six times in seven seasons from 2004-2010, the Nationals began a slow climb up the standings with a third- place finish in 2011. And though that 80-81 record wasn't much to write home about, it did show that the Nats were headed in the right direction.
Not too much was expected out of Washington in 2012, a campaign that figured to serve as seasoning for the returning Stephen Strasburg from Tommy John surgery and rookie Bryce Harper, a pair of No. 1 overall picks from 2009 and '10 respectively charged with leading the franchise into a successful future.
It ended up being much more as Strasburg was dominant until being shut down due to an innings limit and Harper won the NL Rookie of the Year award. Gio Gonzalez led all of baseball with 21 wins in his first season with the Nationals and Tyler Clippard saved the bullpen, while Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond all provided pop at the plate to help Harper.
The result was an 18-win improvement and the franchise's first trip to the playoffs since the Montreal Expos advanced to the NLCS in the 1981 split season. Washington's 98-64 record was also the best in baseball, but it failed to get out of the NLDS, falling in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals after failing to hold leads of 6-0 and 7-5 in the series-deciding contest.
That brief taste of success left the Nats wanting more. They were able to get manager Davey Johnson, winner of the NL Manager of the Year award, to return for the 2013 season before the 70-year-old moves into a consultant role next year and were big players in free agency.
Washington hit each aspect, adding center fielder Denard Span, right-handed starter Dan Haren and closer Rafael Soriano to form one of the deeper teams in the league and also brought back first baseman Adam LaRoche to fill out the meat of the order.
Of course, a lot is still riding on the further growth of Strasburg and Harper, but the Nats look poised to challenge for NL East supremacy once again.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Nationals, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
Nationals Projected Lineup
(98-64) - First Place (NL East)
Key Offseason additions
Denard Span (OF), Dan Haren (RHP), Rafael Soriano (RHP)
Key Offseason subtractions
Michael Morse (1B/OF), Edwin Jackson (RHP), Sean Burnett (LHP), Tom Gorzelanny (LHP), John Lannan (LHP), Mark DeRosa (INF/OF), Mike Gonzalez (LHP)
WHAT WILL STRASBURG AND HARPER DO FOR AN ENCORE?
The Nationals were very careful with their prized pitcher in Strasburg last season, shutting the right-hander down after 159 1/3 innings and 28 starts after he had his 2010 rookie season end in August due to Tommy John surgery.
Washington wasn't going to risk Strasburg's long-term health and stuck to its plans of ending his 2012 season early despite being in the pennant race and ultimately the playoffs.
Strasburg won't have an innings limit this season and will be looking to build off his previous campaign that produced a 15-6 record and 3.16 earned run average. The 24-year-old righty fanned 197 and walked just 48 while holding hitters to a .230 average.
A 20-win, 225-strikeout season is certainly a bar that Strasburg can reach and if he can improve pitching out of the stretch and stay healthy, he should be in Cy Young talks come September.
Harper, meanwhile, had his ups and downs last season after cracking the Nats' big league roster by the end of April, but he certainly showed the talent that made him the top pick of the 2010 draft.
Harper, who won't turn 21 until Oct. 16, hit .270 with 22 homers, 59 RBI and 98 runs scored. He stole 18 bases and played all three outfield positions, with the bulk of his time spent in center field.
The dreaded sophomore jinx is looming for Harper, but he has the confidence and swagger to avoid such superstitions. Of course, it is that attitude that also gets him in trouble at times, but that should fade with maturity.
Will Harper take a step back this season? That's a clown question bro.
DO THE NATS HAVE THE BEST BULLPEN IN BASEBALL?
The addition of Soriano could improve a bullpen that already had the third- best bullpen ERA in the NL last season (3.23) and the third most saves in the league with 51.
The 33-year-old righty owns a career ERA of 2.78 and has saved 132 games in his career. That includes a career-high 45 for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, the only previous time he entered a season with the closer's role.
However, he made 42 saves in 46 chances last season with the New York Yankees after Mariano Rivera suffered a torn right ACL in May and also logged a 2.26 ERA. After opting out of his contract, Soriano turned his success last season into a two-year deal with the Nats and will jump right into the role previously held by Drew Storen and then Clippard.
Storen saved 43 games in 2011, but was limited to just 37 appearances last year because of right elbow surgery in April. Clippard eventually claimed the ninth-inning spot and saved 32-of-37 chances while going 2-6 with a 3.72 ERA in 74 games. That came after he logged a 1.83 ERA in 72 games in a set-up role the previous season.
Washington's bullpen was not at its best down the stretch last season and the hope is that Soriano will be consistent from start to finish ahead of his right-handed setup duo in Storen and Clippard.
If there is one area of concern it is that Washington looks ready to head into the regular season with just one lefty in its bullpen: former starter Zach Duke, who was 1-0 with a 1.32 ERA in eight games with the Nats last season.
WHAT IMPACT WITH SPAN HAVE ON THE LINEUP?
That addition of Span could be the biggest and impacts the team in the most ways. His addition gives each person a set role in the outfield, with Span in center, Harper shifting to left field and Jayson Werth handling duties in right.
Those three are also now slotted in better spots in the lineup as well. Span is the true leadoff hitter that the Nationals needed and the price to acquire the 29-year-old was simply a minor league pitcher.
Span is a career .284 hitter with a lifetime .357 on-base percentage. He doesn't walk a ton or have much power, but he'll be on the bases enough to give Werth, Harper and a healthy Ryan Zimmerman enough chances to hit with runners on base.
With Span in the mix, Werth can slide down from the leadoff spot to the two- hole, where his 20-homer power and career .267 average fit better. Harper also slots down to the third spot with plenty of chances to drive in runners ahead of Zimmerman and LaRoche in the order.
X-FACTOR: DAN HAREN
Haren was named to three straight All-Star teams from 2007-09, has some of the best control in baseball and has twice before found himself in the top 10 in Cy Young voting.
However, he had a dreadful 2012 campaign, following up a career-high 16 win season with the Los Angeles Angels by going 12-13 with a 4.33 ERA in 30 starts. That caused the Angels to buy out his option and he signed on for one year with the Nationals to fill out the back end of their rotation.
The 32-year-old should be motivated and wasn't even really that bad last season, posting a 3.34 ERA by the end of April and a 2.81 ERA over his final eight starts. In between, he landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career because of back and hip issues.
Those types of issues were new to Haren and the pressure to perform near the top of the Angels' rotation will be off his shoulders now as he looks to rebound in Washington.
The Nationals have added depth to their already-talented roster and figure to be serious World Series contenders this season. Gonzalez raised some flags when his name was listed to another PEDs media report this offseason, but he has seemingly been cleared of any wrongdoings or link to illegal substances. Add his clear head to Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and a possible free agent steal in Haren, a talented and deep bullpen that could dominate the latter third of the game and an explosive offense and you have all the makings of a possible 100-win team. Inexperience could be the only thing that holds back the Nats from dominating in 2013.