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A year after exceeding expectations, Nats raise them

VIERA, Fla. -- Spring Training is the classic time for optimism. But in the case of the Washington Nationals, run-of-the-mill optimism is simply not sufficient for the magnitude of this task.

The best team in baseball during the 2012 regular season looks even better now.

The Nationals won 98 games and a division title last year. When a team gets to this level, measuring regular season progress in victories is not always plausible. The more lasting measurement would be a larger championship; first a National League championship, then a World Series championship.

The Nationals had a true breakthrough season in 2012. Their loss to the Cardinals in a Division Series just left the Nats with additional goals to achieve.

So in the offseason, they made improvements. They added a legitimate center fielder/leadoff hitter, Denard Span, in a trade with Minnesota. They added a veteran starter, Dan Haren, who, if you look at the whole of his career rather than last season, would be an upgrade from Edwin Jackson. And they bolstered their bullpen with the acquisition of closer Rafael Soriano, who was coming off a top-shelf season with the Yankees.

More recently, the Nationals added another proven veteran starter, Chris Young, to provide greater pitching depth. It may be extremely difficult to improve upon 98 victories, but all of this adds up to improvement, anyway.

"Yeah, [general manager] Mike Rizzo is always going to be improving the ballclub," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said Sunday at Space Coast Stadium. "He's an outstanding GM. Good judge of talent. And every move he's made since I've been here has been outstanding. Not only does he get good talent, but he gets good makeup with it."

There is a world of difference between a club coming to Spring Training with 80 victories the previous season, as the Nationals did last year, and a team coming to this point off a 98-victory season, with a division title in hand.

"I think it feels good," Johnson said. "There is nothing wrong with expressing your talent and winning a division. That's what we're here for. I thought it was realistic going into last year. I think it's more realistic even this year. And I think I'm on the same page as the players. We know it's only going to happen if we go out and perform at our best. That's the way I like it."

Gazing at the names on the Nationals' pitching staff, you are tempted to concede them every sort of championship before March arrives. But no matter their talent level, the NL East will once again be a stern test.

"I expect it always to be tough," Johnson said. "The NL East is always going to be a tough division as long as you've got Atlanta and Philadelphia. And the Mets are very determined. I guess you'd have to say that Miami's in a little rebuilding [mode] where they're at. But it's very competitive division. I'm looking forward to it."

You can pick your own favorite Nationals move, but they will be happy with Span. The allegedly hot commodity among center field/leadoff hitters this winter was Michael Bourn, who did eventually get a four-year, $48 million deal from Cleveland.

One National League executive said that there was no doubt that he would rather have Span on his club than Bourn. "Span handles the bat much better," the executive said. And in fact, Span has a lifetime .357 on-base percentage compared with .339 for Bourn. Span strikes out only once every 7.27 at-bats, while Bourn strikes out every 4.59 at-bats.

"Well, it only took two years, but we finally got him," Johnson said of Span. "We've been on Denard for quite a while. But he fits in really good. He's a welcome addition."

The Nats had their Grapefruit League home opener Sunday at Space Coast Stadium against the Miami Marlins. The contrast in expectations could not have much larger for the two clubs. But what continues to move the applause meter is the Nationals' pitching.

This game was a something-for-everyone event, including a rain delay, an extra inning and a 2-2 tie. Before all that, Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann gave up a run in three innings, but he was pounding the lower part of the strike zone like midseason was upon us, getting eight outs on the ground, along with one strikeout.

Zimmermann had a 2.94 ERA and 1.17 WHIP last season, and he walked just 43 batters in 195 2/3 innings. If he is the third Nationals starter, behind Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, there are big league teams that don't have any starters as good as Washington's third starter.

This portion of the discussion does not even get us into Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, etc. And we haven't even opened up the storyline in which Johnson, at age 70, after a completely triumphant season, gets to go out on top and ride off into the sunset of a happy retirement.

One way or another, the franchise-turning season the Nationals put up in 2012 now looks like the furthest thing from a fluke. It looks more like just the beginning.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
Read More: Washington Nationals, Denard Span, Jordan Zimmermann