Spring training is still a few days away - I'll be touching down in Orlando on Saturday, then taking the hour-long drive east to Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., where I'll be holding down the fort pending the arrival of a new Nationals beat reporter soon - but the Nationals are already getting some attention from the national media types.
It was bound to happen. But so soon?
Last night on MLB Network's "Hot Stove" evening roundtable, ex-major leaguers-turned-analysts Dave Valle and Mitch Williams predicted the Nationals would be the surprise team in the National League East in 2013. Valle and Williams went as far as to suggest that the Nats would be the NL wild card (or one of two NL wild card teams, should commissioner Bug Selig's plan to add an additional playoff team come to pass for this season).
Chew on that for a few minutes.
The Nationals? Playoff-bound?
OK, Williams is most famous for giving up the walk-off World Series-winning homer to Toronto's Joe Carter back in 1993, though Philadelphia fans seems to have forgiven even if they've not forgotten. Valle spent 13 seasons as a major league catcher, but never even sniffed the postseason. But they've been around the game for a while and their opinions carry some weight.
Stranger things could happen. The Phillies aren't as strong as they once were, especially past their first few starting pitchers, and they have to figure out how to compensate for the loss of slugger Ryan Howard for at least a month or two. The Braves are going to count a lot on young pitching, Chipper Jones' cranky knees and a rebound by Jason Heyward. The Marlins spent money like an old woman at a Fort Lauderdale swap meet, but they've still got to deal with Hanley Ramirez's reticence to move to third base, Ozzie Guillen's bombastic personality and Josh Johnson's return from injury.
The Mets? OK, I'll pause for a few minutes so you can compose yourselves after pondering their postseason chances. You have a better chance of booking Mr. Met for your kid's birthday celebration.
That leaves the Nationals, who go into 2012 full of hope and anticipation. Maybe general manager Mike Rizzo was targeting 2013 for a coming-out party, but the Nats' strong finish last season, the return of Stephen Strasburg, the additions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson - all are reasons to optimism.
Yes, questions remains. Can Ian Desmond hold down the leadoff spot? Is Bryce Harper ready? Who's playing center field? How many innings will Strasburg pitch? But answering questions is what a season is all about, and spring training is merely the start.