Washington Nationals expecting big things in 2013

Maybe there’s something appropriate about the timing of it all:

What’s expected to be the first full season together for Stephen

Strasburg and Bryce Harper is supposed to be the final season for

their manager, Davey Johnson.

And maybe all of the heartache of those 100-loss years and

last-place finishes could finally feel worth it in 2013 to the

Washington Nationals, a popular pick to win the World Series.

No early shutdown for right-hander Strasburg. No waiting around

in the minors for left fielder Harper. To hear the 70-year-old

Johnson tell it, no shortage of high expectations, either: ”World

Series or bust” was the reigning NL Manager of the Year’s

proclamation heading into what the team says is his last go-round

in the dugout.

”Most of the guys on our team aren’t very `bulletin board

material’ kind of guys. We’re pretty boring when we talk to the

media. So I think Davey enjoys saying those kind of things,” said

third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ first draft pick after

moving from Montreal in 2005. ”For him to say that, obviously that

shows how much confidence he has in us. I think that makes us play

better for him, because we don’t want to make him look foolish by

saying those things. It’s just all part of his master plan.”

Strasburg and Harper both were No. 1 overall picks in baseball’s

amateur draft – rewards reaped by having the majors’ worst record

in 2008 and 2009 – and both will be in Washington right from the

start this time. As well as the finish, they and their teammates

hope.

”Last year, we didn’t really know when Stras was going to be

done or when Harp was going to come up,” Zimmerman said. ”Anytime

you have any kind of uncertainty around a team, it’s harder to deal

with.”

Despite those questions and a slew of injuries to position

players in 2012, the Nationals won 98 games, more than anyone else.

But they blew a 6-0 lead in Game 5 of their division series against

St. Louis and bowed out of the playoffs without Strasburg, who was

told to rest his surgically repaired right elbow after 159 1-3

innings.

By the time he sat in September, Harper was really on a roll,

one that would earn NL Rookie of the Year honors for a 19-year-old

who began the season in Triple-A. Plenty of folks, including the

kid himself, expect Harper to have better numbers than his .270

batting average, 22 homers, 59 RBIs and 18 steals of a year

ago.

”I want perfection out of myself, and I think everybody wants

perfection out of our team,” Harper said. ”We’re going to come

out here, play our game and hopefully get deeper than we did last

year and hopefully have a shot at having a parade at the end.”

OK, so maybe Zimmerman was wrong about being boring.

One key to the team’s 18-victory improvement from 2011 to 2012:

They were one of only three clubs – World Series champion San

Francisco and NL Central winner Cincinnati were the others – with

at least 27 starts each from five pitchers, according to STATS.

Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, a 21-game winner who finished third

in NL Cy Young Award voting, get the attention, but the Nationals

also feature hard thrower Jordan Zimmermann, 2007 first-round pick

Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren, who won at least 12 games each of the

past eight seasons and replaces Edwin Jackson.

”I’m just a little bit further along. Last year, I was just

trying to find the feel for it. Now the feel is there,” said

Strasburg, 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 2012. ”It’s

just a matter of going out and repeating it.”

He’s 24. Harper is 20. They’re joined by twentysomethings

Zimmerman, Desmond and Espinosa in the infield, Zimmermann and

Detwiler in the rotation and catcher Wilson Ramos. The only

addition to the everyday lineup is Denard Span, who will play

center and hit leadoff, the type of player Washington’s been

seeking for years. The Nationals added to an already deep bullpen

by signing free-agent closer Rafael Soriano.

”We have the talent and the chemistry to do something

special,” Zimmerman said. ”A lot of things have to happen right.

We’ll just have to grind it out.”

One big difference for the Nationals this season is that they

will not be catching anyone by surprise.

For the first time since arriving in the nation’s capital,

they’re considered a favorite.

”The expectations have risen,” general manager Mike Rizzo

said. ”The players see that. They understand where we’re at, what

type of team we have.”

Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

Carl Kotala reported from Viera, Fla.