No. 1 Nats: Playoff heartbreak shouldn't detour Washington as NL pennant favorites

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports has examined the offseason of every MLB team in advance of spring training beginning in mid-February. Our series ends with the Washington Nationals.

MLB Springboards: No. 30 Astros | No. 29 Marlins | No. 28 Mets | No. 27 Rockies | No. 26 Twins | No. 25 Pirates | No. 24 Indians | No. 23 Mariners | No. 22 Padres | No. 21 Cubs | No. 20 Brewers | No. 19 Red Sox | No. 18 White Sox | No. 17 Royals | No. 16 Orioles | No. 15 Phillies | No. 14 Diamondbacks | No. 13 Athletics | No. 12 Rangers | No. 11 Yankees | No. 10 Rays | No. 9 Cardinals | No. 8 Giants | No. 7 Tigers | No. 6 Braves | No. 5 Angels | No. 4 Reds | No. 3 Dodgers | No. 2 Blue Jays

2012 record: 98-64
Finish: First, NL East
2012 final payroll: $96.7 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $110 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 1
Hashtags: #daveyslastmile #goteddy #harper2 #natidude #clipnsori #strasmastimeagain #sixzipfail #giokibosch #rizzomania

OFFSEASON ACTION

Having constructed a club that won 98 games and for the better part of three hours one October night stood on the verge of the National League Championship Series, general manager Mike Rizzo required few of the broad strokes of recent offseasons. The Nationals he perhaps envisioned almost four years ago, when he assumed day-to-day control of the club, had come to life.

Many of the can't-miss draft picks – with their subsequent down-to-the-wire negotiations with Scott Boras – were on the field. Bryce Harper had manned center field as a 19-year-old. The Stephen Strasburg decision – to end his season in early September – had been difficult, but was behind them. The big free-agent strike from two years before – Jayson Werth – had been back on the field after an early-season wrist injury and helped drive the Nationals over those final two months to a division title. Gio Gonzalez, acquired for four well-regarded players the winter before, had won 21 games and was third in the NL Cy Young Award balloting.

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Bryce Harper hit 22 homers, scored 98 runs and had 59 RBIs in his rookie of the year campaign. (AP)

The Nats, like their parade of dead presidents, were up and running (and generally in the right direction). That the bullpen had failed so spectacularly in Game 5 of the division series, that a six-run lead had evaporated before 46,000 believers in a hail of eight walks, that Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma had delivered the cruelest blows, changed little of the franchise's new identity.

And so in the months that followed, Rizzo's maneuvers became surgical.

The best starting rotation in the NL would lose Edwin Jackson, so Rizzo bought low on veteran Dan Haren, hampered by injuries in a 12-13 season with the Los Angeles Angels. For $13 million over one season, Rizzo would take the chance Haren could be healthy and return to the 16-game winner of the season before.

In the meantime, the Minnesota Twins were letting it be known they'd consider any trade that would bring them good, young pitching. Rizzo had always admired the Twins' center fielder, and at the end of November he acquired Denard Span for then-22-year-old right-hander Alex Meyer, their 23rd-overall pick in the 2011 draft. Span would take over in center, moving Harper to left.

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In that scenario, Mike Morse would move from left to first. When Rizzo re-signed first baseman Adam LaRoche after a somewhat lengthy negotiation, Morse became expendable. And in a deft move that would cover for the organizational loss of Meyer, Rizzo dealt Morse to Seattle as part of a three-way trade and received in return A.J. Cole, one of those good young arms who'd gone to Oakland the winter before for Gio Gonzalez.

In a move that secured his bullpen, Rizzo then signed Rafael Soriano for $28 million over two seasons. Soriano had 42 saves for the New York Yankees in 2012. With Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard already proven in the late innings, the Nationals had gotten another inning deeper.

REALITY CHECK

Just four seasons ago, the Nationals won 59 games. No team won fewer. The journey from there to here hadn't always been smooth or pretty, but the Nationals kept putting one spike in front of the other. Last spring training, manager Davey Johnson said he believed the Nationals were postseason ready and, indeed, if they didn't advance he should pay with his job. Many smiled at the feisty old guy with the big dreams. Then the Nats won the division by four games over the Atlanta Braves, by 17 over the graying Philadelphia Phillies and by 29 over the flammable and shockingly inept Miami Marlins.

[Related: Gio Gonzalez joins Team USA for WBC]

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Rafael Soriano will close this season for the Nationals. (AP)

By the winter meetings, Johnson had fresh goals.

"World Series or bust," he said in December. "That's probably the slogan this year."

He didn't again offer his job as collateral. Johnson is 70 and likely to retire after the 2013 season.

Generally, the Nationals have come to a place in the life of an organization where aging is a good thing. They've now spent a season as the chased. They've stood together in October, felt its bracing gales and tension. They've won there meticulously and lost there imprecisely.

They return what could be the best rotation in the game, or certainly one on the same bus with those in Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Cincinnati. The seventh, eighth and ninth innings, critical for a team whose starting pitchers for all their effectiveness averaged fewer than six innings, appear secure. And the offense, with Span at the top and some combination of Werth, Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, LaRoche and Ian Desmond to follow, should be formidable.

Even with the loss of Chipper Jones to retirement, the Braves could be better than they were. And the Phillies could be healthier. The Nationals, however, remain the premier club in the NL East. Only this time, this season, the expectations are much higher than that.

SAVIOR

There are candidates. Ryan Zimmerman had surgery to repair his right shoulder in October. Stephen Strasburg is cleared for a full season, 200 innings or more. Bryce Harper comes to year two. So critical to the rotation last season, Gio Gonzalez returns with baggage from the Biogenesis scandal and a possible MLB investigation.

But the guy here is Jayson Werth. Two years into a seven-year, $126 million contract, he's had a season in which he batted .232 and a season in which he played 81 games. It wasn't that long ago when he led the NL with 46 doubles, and a year before that he hit 36 home runs.

Werth returned from wrist surgery last summer and over the final two months had a .312 batting average and a .394 on-base percentage. He can play anywhere in the outfield and he can hit anywhere in the lineup. Not that the Nationals need much saving, but a healthy and productive Werth may be essential.

HAIKU

Can the Nats be champs?
Check the staff, check the lineup
A clown question, bro

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