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WS-hopeful Nats must answer questions in '18

New manager, Harper's future up for examination in Washington
MLB.com @JamalCollier

WASHINGTON -- Sustained winning like the Nationals have enjoyed the past few years has brought expectations. Standards are high. No longer are the Nationals happy with winning the National League East and making the postseason, which they have done in back-to-back years and in four of the past six seasons.

Now, the Nationals expect more. And this upcoming year will mark one of the most important in franchise history. Washington is coming off a year when it won 97 games -- the second most in franchise history -- with nearly all of that roster returning in 2018. In their quest to win the World Series, the Nats have a first-time manager, a franchise star potentially headed for free agency and a fan base yearning for the team to take the next step.

WASHINGTON -- Sustained winning like the Nationals have enjoyed the past few years has brought expectations. Standards are high. No longer are the Nationals happy with winning the National League East and making the postseason, which they have done in back-to-back years and in four of the past six seasons.

Now, the Nationals expect more. And this upcoming year will mark one of the most important in franchise history. Washington is coming off a year when it won 97 games -- the second most in franchise history -- with nearly all of that roster returning in 2018. In their quest to win the World Series, the Nats have a first-time manager, a franchise star potentially headed for free agency and a fan base yearning for the team to take the next step.

Here are a few questions surrounding the Nationals heading into 2018:

1. What kind of manager will Dave Martinez be?
The Nationals made their most shocking move to start the 2017 offseason when they decided to not bring manager Dusty Baker back after two seasons. The team hired Martinez to replace him, and Martinez is a first-time skipper who will have to learn quickly on the job. One thing the Nats' newest manager does promise to be is creative, which should make for an interesting first year in D.C.

Video: Dave Martinez talks about his excitement for 2018

2. Will Bryce Harper stay in Washington?
The question has loomed the last few years, but it will loom particularly large over this Nationals season: What lies in Harper's future with his contract set to expire after the 2018 season? Whether the Nats can reach an agreement on a contract extension or not, general manager Mike Rizzo has said he wants to keep Harper and will be active in trying to retain him. Harper still has at least one more season left in Washington, and how it goes could play a role in his decision next winter.

Video: Rizzo joins High Heat to discuss Harper's future

3. What is Rizzo's future with the team?
Another contract situation to watch out for this year involves Rizzo, who is entering the final year of his deal. Rizzo has said he is not worried about his contract status and will wait for ownership to approach him about a new deal. However, this season could be an important one for his future in Washington.

4. Will the Nats make a big splash this offseason?
The Nationals are fortunate to return most of their team in 2018, which gives Rizzo the freedom to just make tweaks to the roster. However, Rizzo has also been known to make a move he believes can improve the Nationals even when there is not a clear need for his club. That makes the Nats one of the wild cards this offseason. Perhaps if one of the starting pitchers lingers on the trade or free-agent market during the next couple weeks, they could become aggressive to try and add another arm to increase the strength they already have in the rotation.

5. Is this the year the Nats get over the hump?
Regardless of whether the Nationals make a major splash this offseason or if they continue to improve the team around the margins, they will be in position to enter the season as World Series contenders. And yet, the biggest question for the Nationals will still be whether they can advance past the NL Division Series for the first time in team history after losses in Game 5 in consecutive seasons.

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.

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