Debating whether the Nats can return to their 2012 form

Even with the way the Nationals underachieved this season, following up a 98-win campaign and a National League East title in 2012 by winning just 86 games and missing out on the postseason this year, there is a sense held by most around the game that the Nats are still a team on the rise.

A good portion of the roster from the 2012 season is still in place. The starting rotation is headlined by three pitchers 28 years old or under (Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann), all of whom have ace-type ability.

Bryce Harper nearly has two full seasons under his belt now, and is continuing to progress. Ian Desmond is looking like he's on the verge of becoming one of the top shortstops in the game. If they can stay healthy, Wilson Ramos and Anthony Rendon have shown they could become young building blocks themselves. Ryan Zimmerman's shoulder got stronger as the season went on, and he played at a very high level down the stretch. Jayson Werth had a monster season, and at 34, still is going strong.

Despite all that, at least one national writer is wondering whether the Nationals might have already missed their window to make a deep push towards a World Series.

Dave Schoenfield of ESPN.com, whose stuff I enjoy reading, wrote a brief story yesterday in which he questions whether the Nationals will be able to match their 2012 season again anytime soon. Schoenfield couples that by asking whether Strasburg and Harper will ever reach their lofty potential, a question that could go a long way in determining whether the Nats' so-called "window" remains open for years to come.

The surgeries that Strasburg and Harper underwent last week are not considered major procedures, but there are no guarantees that either player will be completely healthy come spring. Beyond that, however, Schoenfield notes that the threat of injury always hangs over young potential superstars, some of whom aren't able to live up to the hype because of various ailments.

On a broader perspective, Schoenfield looks at the Nats' strong play down the stretch this season, and points out that a number of the Nats' late-season wins came against the bottom three teams in the NL East - the Phillies, Mets and Marlins - who finished the year with a combined .432 winning percentage. That, of course, is true; of the Nats' last 32 games, 23 came against Philadelphia, New York and Miami.

On the season, the Nats had a .649 winning percentage against those three teams, and a .467 winning percentage against all other teams. Schoenfield believes that it's possible we'll see improvements from the Phillies, the Mets, as well as the Marlins next season, meaning the wins within the division will be tougher to earn.

The Nats, of course, could end up making improvements to their roster this offseason. They could add a strong starter to bolster the back of the rotation, or could just see improved work out of Ross Detwiler and one of their emerging younger starters. Adam LaRoche could return to more of his 2012 form after a disastrous 2013 season. The bench and bullpen, both of which had issues this year, could trend upward and return to the level we saw a year ago. The younger players - Strasburg and Harper among them - could go injury-free and continue to improve.

The Nats could also perform better against the Braves, against whom they went a lousy 6-13 this season.

But Schoenfield seems to wonder whether that will be enough, and whether the chances are all that good of the Nats replicating their 2012 season.

It's an interesting topic and a fair conversation to get into. Strasburg has now had two surgeries on his throwing elbow, and Harper wasn't the same player after banging his knee against the Dodger Stadium wall in mid-May. The NL East was very soft this season, and the Nats still managed just 86 wins. LaRoche and Werth will be a year older in 2014, and there are questions about the bullpen depth and talent level on the bench.

But personally, I feel the Nationals' starting pitching and level of young talent will keep the proverbial "window" open for at least a few years to come, and probably more. Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann are all under contract through at least 2015, and it's reasonable to expect the rotation will be bolstered in one way or another, either through an outside addition or an internal improvement. The Nats have shown the ability to draft well and infuse the organization with young talent.

Does that mean the Nats are guaranteed to win 98 games again or win a World Series? Of course not. But in my mind, it keeps the "window" open for a little while.

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