- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2013

A few minutes after Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo sat before a room full of media and team employees to introduce his new closer Thursday, he stood to the side and challenged the idea that Washington’ latest moves should be interpreted as the team announcing it is “all-in” for the 2013 season.

“I hear this term ‘all-in’ and it confuses me,” Rizzo said. “We’re always all-in, but we have to think about next year and the year after.”

Maybe so, but after spending eight years in different states of transition — from a glorified expansion team through a systematic rebuilding period to the best record in the major leagues in 2012 — they find themselves in a new phase yet again as the 2013 season approaches.

By their own doing, whether by adding Denard Span, Dan Haren and the closer, Rafael Soriano, or letting their brash manager proclaim the team’s slogan for the upcoming season is “World Series or bust” back in December, the Nationals now must learn to live as the favorites — the team that everyone else is interested in knocking from the top spot.

Haren took the Nationals’ offer because he felt they represented the best fit for him, and that included a chance to win. Adam LaRoche couldn’t draw himself elsewhere for some of those same reasons. Even Soriano, in briefly discussing his attraction to the Nationals, used the words “World Series” as a main selling point.

“We’re going to have to learn how to deal with having the bull’s-eye on our back,” Rizzo acknowledged, highlighting the importance of players such as Jayson Werth and their experience in dealing with that. “I think the maturity of the club will handle it.

“We’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore. People know we have a good club and they’re going to be shooting for us every time out. It’ll be up to the players to react to that and to handle it in a way that positively motivates them and not negatively.”

The Nationals faced a different kind of task this offseason. Their 2012 season couldn’t have gone much better. Their ending couldn’t have been much worse. With very few holes to fill to begin with, the Nationals had to find a way to improve a team that won 98 regular-season games but fell gut-wrenchingly short of their ultimate goal.

The Nationals acquired the type of leadoff-hitting center fielder they’d been seeking for the better part of their existence in Span. That allowed them to shift Bryce Harper and Werth permanently to the corners. They switched out Edwin Jackson with Haren, a change that, assuming health is not a factor, upgraded the back end of their already well-stocked rotation. They retained their slick-fielding first baseman and added a $28 million closer to their bullpen.

They are not the same team that led the major leagues in victories a year ago.

They shed personality and talent when they traded away Michael Morse and, to this point, they’ll be without Mark DeRosa’s veteran voice in the back corner of the room. But trying to improve upon last season wasn’t going to be easy or painless.

“I think we’re a more well-rounded team this year,” Rizzo said, noting lineup balance, defensive upgrades and the experience most of the Nationals’ young players got with their first foray into the playoffs in 2012.

“I think we’re more athletic,” he continued. “We’ll be counting less on the three-run home run. We’ll be manufacturing runs a little bit more. We’re going to steal more bases. We’re going to be faster and more athletic than we’ve been in the past and our bullpen is going to be extremely, extremely difficult to deal with for other clubs.”

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