The Nationals finished 2011 just one win short of a .500 season: 80-81.
That was their best finish since 2005 -- their first year in Washington, actually -- when they went 81-81.
Now, it should be said that the numbers from last season provide no great cause for optimism. Somewhat bizarrely, manager Jim Riggleman up and quit when the Nationals were 38-37; a few games later, Davey Johnson took over and guided the Nats to a 40-43 mark. Overall, the club was outscored by 21 runs; they could just as easily have gone 76-85 as 80-81.
Still, a lot of teams that have been outscored by 20-odd runs in one season wound up in the playoffs the next. And if you're looking for candidates for next season, you could do a lot worse than the Nationals.
First, though, a pretty good reason for skepticism: The Nationals finished 12th in the National League in scoring last season, and have done nothing this winter to upgrade their lineup. Absolutely nothing.
Nevertheless, the Nats should score more runs this season. Catcher Wilson Ramos played in only 113 games last season, and should take a larger role. Ryan Zimmerman played in only 101 games last season, and should be healthier. Jayson Werth played in 150 games last season but didn't play well; as Marc Normandin wrote earlier this week, Werth is a good bet to bounce back with a solid season. And über-prospect Bryce Harper? We don't know anything, really, except that Davey Johnson wants him.
Simply put, there are more positions at which the Nationals are likely to get more production in 2012 than less.
But the real story's their pitching. Last season the Nationals got exactly 31 starts from Jordan Zimmermann (26), Stephen Strasburg (5), Edwin Jackson (0) and Gio Gonzalez (0). This season the plan is to get roughly 120 starts from those four, while getting none from Livan Hernandez (4.47 ERA in 29 starts), Jason Marquis (3.95 in 20) and perhaps John Lannan (3.70 in 33).
Here's the thing, though ... Those guys last year really weren't so bad. Gio Gonzalez might be better than Lannan and Marquis. He might not be. Same for Jackson, who's got a 3.96 ERA over the last three seasons.
There's little doubt that the Nationals are a better team today than they were six months ago. Better enough to challenge the Phillies and the Braves in the National League East, though? Perhaps. They will need two or three players to have outstanding seasons. And with presumably full seasons from Strasburg and Zimmerman, that seems like more than just a fantasy.