Nats concede Mets are "team to beat" right now in NL East

VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals know very much what it's like to be labeled as National League East favorites and know very much how little that actually means in the end.

So as they gather in late February for the start of the long grind, they're perfectly fine ceding that designation to the division's reigning champs: the Mets.

"The team to beat are the Mets," right fielder Bryce Harper said Monday in his first media session of 2016. "That's what it is right now. They kicked the crap out of our division last year. Hopefully, we're going to come in this year and do what we can to knock them off, or anybody else off in all of baseball."

Bryce Harper gray at bat.jpgIt's quite a different position the Nationals find themselves in, on the heels of a disappointing 83-79 campaign that coincided with the Mets' surprise, late-summer ascension to their first NL East title in nine years and their first World Series appearance in 15 years.

One year ago, Harper reported for spring training and raved about the Nationals' addition of Max Scherzer to what already was considered baseball's best rotation, rhetorically asking "Where's my ring?"

The Nationals remain a confident bunch this spring, but they're not making any declarations that might wind up on anybody's bulletin board. If anything, they speak glowingly about the Mets, particularly their dynamic, young rotation.

"It's a good, talented staff," said new second baseman Daniel Murphy, who comes to Washington after a decade in New York's organization. "There's no doubt about that. I had a front-row seat with most of those guys for a couple years. ... Hopefully, we can take what I saw on the field, and maybe what (Nats hitters) saw, and see if we can put together the best approach to try to win ballgames."

The Nationals believe their roster stacks up well with the Mets roster, bolstered by the offseason additions of Murphy, Ben Revere and an overhauled bullpen. They also know what a difference a healthy lineup would make after watching Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and Denard Span all miss significant time in 2015 due to injuries.

"Yeah, but a lot of teams can say that," Harper said. "The Cardinals were hurt last year. A lot of teams were, but guys made it work. It's definitely hard when you don't have a center fielder, don't have a left fielder to start spring training. When you don't have a first baseman to start spring training with. Rendon was hurt. You can go on and on. But no excuses. You just have to play the game how you can. Guys are going to plug in where they can.

"You have to tip your caps to the teams that played well last year. But that's last year. That's so in the past. I'm not worried about that. I'm just trying to get everybody ready to get going this year."

Having seen things play out from the other side, Murphy appreciates how the Nationals and Mets have slowly developed into the division's top rivals. And he's looking forward to seeing it from this side now.

"It will be different, but it will definitely be very exciting," the second baseman said. "I think experiencing this rivalry over the last couple years, it's gotten very exciting and heated at times. I think that's what makes for a good rivalry."

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