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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Nationals have pieces to live up to expectations

Nationals have pieces to live up to expectations

Nationals have pieces to live up to expectations

Remember how last spring we told you the Washington Nationals were going to be baseball's best team in 2013?

You're probably wondering how so many of us could be so wrong. Did some of us overdose on stupid pills? (No need to answer that one.)

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All these months later, it's fascinating to look back on what happened to the Nationals in 2013 and the lessons that can be learned.

Here's one of the most interesting parts about all those glowing predictions. We were not wrong. When we praised general manager Mike Rizzo for his roster construction, we were on the money.

Likewise, all the other things we liked about Rizzo's club -- power arms, deep lineup, great clubhouse -- were accurate. The Nats were loaded.

In fact, at the start of Spring Training, the Nationals were the only team in baseball without a glaring weakness. Now they're a good case study for anyone thinking about a career in baseball.

That is, good, smart, sensible decisions don't always get the desired results. Sometimes, stuff happens.

And so the Nats had one of those years. From 98 victories to 86. From winning the National League East to missing the playoffs. From being universally praised to being asked, "What happened?"

If you ask Rizzo, you'll get blunt answers.

"We're not sugarcoating it," he said. "I was disappointed in the year, frustrated with the year. Just with our inconsistency, mostly. Maybe we had more flaws than we thought we did going into the season. But they were exposed, as this game will do to you."

Still, Rizzo couldn't have known that Adam LaRoche's production would fall off so dramatically or that the middle of the order -- Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos and Jayson Werth -- would spend a combined 103 games on the disabled list. He couldn't have known Ross Detwiler would make only 13 starts.

When the Nationals got healthy in the second half of the season, they had baseball's best record (33-15) after Aug. 9. They were No. 1 in the NL in both runs and run differential in that stretch, and for a few days, they made a nice run at the NL's second Wild Card berth.

"I don't want to gloss over the fact that we had a lot of injuries, like a lot of other teams did," Rizzo said. "We missed some key players. I think we showed once we were healthy what we could do."

This is an interesting offseason in that Rizzo's team is good enough to make the playoffs if he doesn't do a single thing. In a perfect world, he'd like to add a starting pitcher and upgrade his bench and bullpen. But he can afford to shop carefully and to get players he's comfortable with. His team is good enough that he doesn't have to settle.

If you're handicapping the NL for 2014, the Nats appear to be right there in the mix along with the Dodgers, Cardinals and Braves.

"I'm happy with the composition of the club," Rizzo said. "I still believe it's a good, young, talented club. We've got a lot of good pieces. I think players have to play up to their capabilities. I'm not talking about having career years. I'm talking having career norm. We should be playing meaningful games at the end of the season."

Perhaps Rizzo's most significant acquisition is one he has already made. That's his new manager, Matt Williams. During a 17-year playing career with the Giants, Indians and D-backs, he became one of baseball's most respected players, both for his production and his work ethic and competitive fire.

Maybe Davey Johnson was the right guy to lead Washington to respectability. But Williams brings an intensity that could also benefit the club if the players feed off of it.

"I think he brings an aura and this energy to the dugout and to the clubhouse," Rizzo said. "His personality and communication style will send a clear message that it's time to get after it. He's a real competitor. He's got an intensity to him. I think what he brings mostly to the table is a communication style and a communication skill that relates to all players. He can relate to the superstar player, because he's made some All-Star teams and won some Gold Gloves and Silver Slugger Awards.

"He's also a guy that struggled at big chunks of time in his career and hasn't forgotten that. He can relate to the struggling player, to the good player, and he's a good guy that will be a player's guy, but won't be afraid to speak up when he thinks a guy isn't playing the game the right way."

Maybe things came too easy for the Nationals when they improved by 18 games in 2012. Maybe there was a larger lesson to be learned in having a season when almost nothing went right.

Regardless, they'll again begin a season as one of the NL favorites, and don't be surprised if they ultimately prove all of us right about them.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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