MLB.com: There seems to be a little more buzz about the Nationals this offseason. It must be gratifying to you, but is the optimism warranted?
Mark Lerner: I certainly think so. You know I'm always optimistic, but when I see folks like Stan Kasten, Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson, Roy Clark, Ron Schueler and the new corps of scouts and baseball minds we assembled in the offseason optimistic, too, then I feel like I'm in pretty good company. I think it's the perfect time for Nationals fans to feel optimistic.
MLB.com: Can you be more specific about why fans should be optimistic?
Lerner: First, as I think anybody that watched the Nationals last season knows, we have some extraordinary young players who are just now coming into their own. We were thrilled with the seven-game winning streak to end the season, and we were thrilled by Justin Maxwell's walk-off grand slam to win our last home game, but look deeper.
Ryan Zimmerman, who has been our franchise player since we came here, had a season all of baseball took note of. He hit and he hit for power while playing Gold Glove third base for us. We now have given him help. Adam Dunn brought us a big bat, with 38 homers and a long-ball threat we didn't have before. We also saw Josh Willingham deliver a rare multiple grand-slam performance and some real growth from Elijah Dukes, who is only going to get better.
You add to the mix a healthy Nyjer Morgan with his speed, his defense and his bat, and you have a very good young core. Nyjer made everyone in the batting order more of a threat, and every one of our pitchers looked better when he was in center field. And, you have only gotten a glimpse of Nyjer's personality off the field. We need these guys to stay healthy.
You add to the position players our young pitching staff, and I think you see our potential. John Lannan -- a youngster himself -- became a team leader and a steady arm. He's only going to get better. Our 2009 Draft class -- featuring Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen -- is the envy of all baseball.
MLB.com: What about the offseason pleases you most? I know there have been some surprising moves there.
Lerner: The most important thing we did was stabilize our team leadership -- building the kind of brain trust that will position us to see more young talent others might not, and to develop the ones we sign.
Mike Rizzo's signing was crucial, and getting Jim Riggleman to sign on makes all our young players feel better. Like I said before, getting minds like Clark, Johnson, Schueler, Kasey McKeon, Johnny DiPuglia and the other scouts and seasoned pros can only contribute more.
Beyond that, we signed pitcher Jason Marquis, who will immediately give us a veteran starter and winner. We signed a future Hall of Fame catcher in Ivan Rodriguez, who will be a steady role model and mentor for Jesus Flores, our likely long-term catcher. Rodriguez should also be very helpful in developing our young pitchers. What could be more reassuring to our young pitchers than seeing Rodriguez behind home plate? We think he will be an immediate influence. We also grabbed veteran reliever Matt Capps. He is a proven setup man and closer. We certainly needed bullpen help, and he will make a big difference. Other bullpen help could come from Brian Bruney and Eddie Guardado.
MLB.com: Do you think Strasburg and Storen will see action at the Major League level this season? How about Opening Day?
Lerner: The safe answer is that it will depend on the coaches, and it will depend on [Strasburg and Storen]. I know these guys have a lot of potential, and they should be great assets for the Nationals for years to come. I'm as impatient as anyone, so I want them out there as soon as possible. But I want to do what's right for the team and for them. We want them pitching at Nationals Park as soon as they can get ready, and we feel like they can be effective. We want them to be able to develop into all they can be.
MLB.com: What is your biggest concern for the upcoming season?
Lerner: I think my biggest concern during any offseason is the players' health and conditioning. Major League seasons are grueling, and we expect so much from these players. You always hope they are sticking to what our trainers want them to do -- to prepare for a new season. We want them to stay healthy and come to Spring Training prepared to play and prepared to compete.
MLB.com: Anything new at Nationals Park?
Lerner: Always. We will be announcing more events, entertainment and some surprises for the 2010 season. Our largest project in the offseason has been the remodeling of the PNC Diamond Club, which will be spectacular.
MLB.com: This will be your family's fourth season opener as owners of the Nationals. Anything different for you now compared to when your family first entered the league?
Lerner: I only get more excited each year. Every year I've felt we were getting a little closer to becoming more competitive and a little closer to being able to contend in the National League East.
From Day 1, we said we would follow a plan and philosophy for building a team and an organization that Stan Kasten and some of the other proven winners in baseball have followed in the past, and we have inched closer to realizing success.
This year, I feel, and I think our fans feel, that every game will be more competitive, that every game will have its own excitement, and that we will soon be exactly what baseball fans hoped for when the game returned to the nation's capital.
I know we have one of the great ballparks in America, and we've built one of the great ballpark experiences anywhere. And now we have one of the most interesting and exciting young teams that has the potential to win any given night. I cannot wait for the start of Spring Training and Opening Day. I know there is plenty of national buzz out there about the Nationals, and I know our fans will want to get out to NatsTown early and often. There is no place you'll rather be this season, I assure you. You will not want to miss a minute of it. I think 2010 will be the official beginning of something big.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.