No team in baseball has improved more in preseason speculation from one year to the next than the Washington Nationals.
Last year at this time, in between chuckles and guffaws, baseball observers (including yours truly) predicted the Nationals and their roster of never-beens, has-beens and wannabes would lose a record number of games — as many as 125 to 130, according to some.
Instead, the Nationals produced one of the most optimistic 89-loss seasons a team could ever have, playing hard, inspired baseball nearly every game under rookie manager Manny Acta.
The Nationals still are riding the wave of not being one of the worst teams in baseball history. This season, though, the expectations will be different.
Acta has proved to be a solid major league manager.
The Nationals have assembled enough worthy pitchers that there won’t likely be any Pedro Astascio minor league contracts this spring.
They still have a strong, deep bullpen.
They have a young power hitter in Wily Mo Pena who finally will get a chance to prove on an everyday basis whether he can sustain his power over a full season and put up some big numbers.
They have a young stud named Lastings Milledge in center field, a position at which they had only a debate over Nook Logan, Ryan Church and Chris Snelling last spring.
(Spring training can make you say stupid things. I was looking over some of my columns from last spring, and I was in love with Chris Snelling. What was that all about?)
They have — if everyone is to be believed — a battle at first between a .300 hitter who was National League Comeback Player of the Year, Dmitri Young, and, if truly recovered from his broken leg, their most productive hitter from two years ago, Nick Johnson.
And, of course, they have Ryan Zimmerman, who, if Pena and Milledge hit up to their potential, should benefit from the lineup protection and have his best year to date.
Oh, yes, one more thing: They are moving into a new ballpark. Nearly forgot that one.
On the down side, there will be the Elijah Dukes watch. And they still don’t have a leadoff hitter.
The stories and speculation this spring will not be about how bad the Washington Nationals will be. Instead, the talk now will be about how good they can be.
As team president Stan Kasten said recently, there still are questions surrounding this team, but the questions are much better than they were a year ago.
So how good can they be?
If Wily Mo can hit 35 home runs, if Milledge can have a respectable full season, if Young or Johnson has a typically strong offensive season and if the bullpen stays healthy, there is no reason to believe the Nationals can’t show a five- to 10-game improvement over last year’s 73-89 record.
There are, however, two wild cards that could change everything: the pair of Nationals who have shown enough talent to be No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers in this league but have yet to show they can stay healthy enough to do so.
John Patterson went 9-7 with a 3.13 ERA in 198 innings pitched in 2005 and at times seemed to be the best pitcher in the league. Shawn Hill had a 3.42 ERA last year in 16 starts.
If Patterson can finally get healthy and regain that old form and if Hill can put a full season like that together, the Nats need only one more guy they can count on consistently.
After three starters, every team is scrambling.
That is the same position the Nationals were in last year, their success depending on the fragile arms of two injury-prone pitchers.
The difference this spring is that the safety net behind them — Matt Chico, Tim Redding, Jason Bergmann, John Lannan and other young arms with promise — appears to be more solid than last year’s supporting cast.
Of course, what would spring training be without getting excited about the phenom pitcher?
People will be watching last year’s No. 1 draft choice, Ross Detwiler, to see if his stuff is too electric to ignore. Or someone else may pop up this spring and demand attention.
Yes, people will be paying attention this spring.
Luckily for the Nationals, it will be for much different reasons than at their last spring training.