Dave Nichols: High goals and lofty expectations

Well, here we are, at the outset of another baseball season. Only this year, for the first opening day since the franchise arrived from Montreal in 2005, there are real expectations for this team. We’re not talking about pie-in-the-sky predictions of barely major league players and castoffs surprising everyone (including their mothers) and playing out of their heads, either. We’re talking about real live, honest-to-goodness expectations that this, at long last, will be the first good Washington Nationals team.

People are practically giddy over the possibilities.

Our Nats, often the butt of jokes, or worse - an afterthought - are the darlings of the national media these days. Many national writers and television experts are predicting that, with the addition of an extra wild card team this year, the Nationals will reach the postseason for the first time. In fact, a few even has this team going to the World Series. Yes, our Nats. Crazy, right?

In a recently released survey of the local independent media and bloggers that cover and follow the Nationals, all but two of the 22 respondents predicted a winning record for the 2012 season. The two that did not predicted a .500 season. Not a single respondent out of a group that follows this team as closely as anyone expects a losing record. Some had the win total as high as 90. Heady stuff.

There’s a foundation for all that optimism. The starting rotation is the strongest and deepest the Nats have ever had. So strong and deep, in fact, that two-time opening day starter John Lannan was exiled to Triple-A Syracuse and will start the season in the minors. Call it the perils of progress. It’s a hardship for the player, who long toiled while the team struggled mightily, only to be jettisoned on the brink of true contention. But offseason acquisitions and the urgency of expectations demanded the drastic move.

The rotation features two homegrown aces: Stephen Strasburg, fully healed from ligament replacement surgery that cost him all but five starts in 2011, and Jordan Zimmermann, the bulldog that led this staff last year in his first full season back from the dreaded Tommy John surgery. The team made two significant offseason additions to bolster the rotation, trading four of their top 15 minor leaguers to Oakland for power lefty Gio Gonzalez and signing free agent Edwin Jackson, who will be the highest-paid starter out of the No. 4 slot.

The bullpen is as deep as any in the game, led by closer Drew Storen. While Storen is (hopefully) temporarily on the disabled list to start the season, World Series veteran Brad Lidge will combine with 2011 All-Star Tyler Clippard, flamethrower Henry Rodriguez and lefty specialist Sean Burnett to hold down the back end.

The biggest questions then come while the Nats are at bat. The team finished 11th in runs scored and 13th in the National League in total base runners last season, and there were no significant moves made to address those issues. Rather, general manager Mike Rizzo is hoping for improvement from within. A full, healthy season from Ryan Zimmerman would go a long way in that effort, as well as a return of something approaching career norms from Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche. And all Michael Morse has to do is repeat his career year from last year.

But the big changes will have to come from the top of the order, where in 2011 the Nats put up on-base percentages of .285 and .283 out of their leadoff and No. 2 spots in the order. That has to be much better, and it’s up to Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa to make those adjustments.

At some point over the summer, though, a brash, unapologetic 19-year old will join this roster and inject a boost of power, speed and charisma that this town hasn’t seen - and will immediately fall in love with. Will Bryce Harper be enough to push the Nats over the hump?

It’s a lot easier to go from sub-70 wins to 80 than it is to go from 80 to 90-plus. The Nats have made remarkable progress in this regard, going from 59 to 69 to 80 wins in the last three seasons. The increment might be smaller this year, but they are going in the right direction. A lot of things have to break right for the Nats to find themselves fighting for the playoffs this season, and I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility, but they’ve built a foundation to compete for many years. I think they’ll ultimately fall just short this season, but why let that dampen the mood on opening day?

Dave Nichols covers the Washington Nationals for District Sports Page. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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