In 2012, they were the best regular-season team in the Majors with a 98-64 record. They led the National League in team earned run average and were fifth in runs scored. A core of brilliant young pitchers offered the promise of a long run of success for this club.
Going into 2013, the Nats thought, with apparent justification, that the World Series was a reasonable goal. What happened instead was an 86-76 season that left them 10 games behind Atlanta in the NL East and out of the postseason. They dropped to sixth in team ERA in the NL and sixth in runs scored.
Now what? The Nationals should be better than they were in 2013. They should be better if players perform to their career norms and if good health is the order of the day. On the surface, the very least that should be expected is a season in which they are constant, viable contenders for a postseason berth.
Why? The pitching should be good enough to keep this operation afloat even if the offense turns out to be merely above average. In the rotation, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez were good in 2013, but more had been expected based on their '12 work. Jordan Zimmermann turned out to be the staff stalwart with a breakthrough season (19-9, 3.25, 1.09 WHIP).
And the Nats have added Doug Fister in a trade with the Tigers. Fister is a strike-thrower who pitches with sink and generates loads of ground balls. He was fourth best in the Majors last season in ground-ball percentage. How much better will Fister be pitching with Washington's infield working for him, as opposed to the relatively immobile crew of infielders he had in Detroit? He'll be even better.
That's a tough group to beat one through four, and there are more than capable candidates for the fifth spot. Add a deep and talented bullpen, which has been bolstered by the addition of veteran lefty Jerry Blevins and the surprise would occur only if the Nationals did not have one of the best pitching staffs in the game.
The offense could use a full season from its catalyst, Bryce Harper, and Jayson Werth. Harper was limited to 118 games last season by a knee injury and by the bruises brought on by his full-tilt style of play. Werth was highly productive when he played, but was limited to 129 games. The Nats should have better depth in the outfield with the addition of Nate McLouth.
The other major variable is what sort of manager Matt Williams will be in his first big league managing job. What can be said with certainty is that he'll be highly organized. Before Spring Training started, Williams had a detailed plan for the entire 41 days. Of course, the plan will have to undergo some revision, but the point is, the thought and the effort were there.
Williams, speaking about the first Spring Training of his managerial career Tuesday at Space Coast Stadium, certainly did not seem like a man who was in any way overwhelmed by his new circumstances.
"I'm used to this part of it, used to the fundamental part of it, because I've dealt with all of that," Williams said. "Doing all the bunt plays, and rundowns and all the other stuff like that, because that's what I generally do as a coach. Everybody is involved.
"The lineup part of it, I've never done, so that's a learning process. Making sure that we get everybody in and look at the first few days of lineups to make sure we get everybody in a game and then monitor from there, move from there.
"And then, of course, when we get to the games, I've done it in other aspects, but not at the Major League level. Communicating with the third-base coach, that type of thing. So that'll be different."
As to the certainty of the 41-day, all-encompassing Spring Training plan, Williams says with a smile:
"There are questions, though. There are questions within every day. And there are little things that we change, depending on what we try to accomplish that particular day. But the structure of it is there, and we'll adjust within that structure and move forward.
"I think everybody is ready to go. I think they're excited about the first game [on Friday against the Mets], ready to get out there on the field and play against somebody else that has a different uniform on. That would be good."
So this is what the 2014 Nationals should have -- plenty of pitching and plenty of structure. Throw in a decent offense and they could be looking at something special, again.