Expectations are high for deep run in playoffs

Heading into last season, the Nationals were a trendy pick for a breakthrough year, but few prognosticators saw them as a playoff team quite yet. There remained roster question marks, injury returns and unproven young talent.

What a difference 12 months makes. After a 98-win season, a National League East title and its first playoff berth since moving to the District in 2005, Washington is now the trendy choice to win a championship. Four of the seven experts tabbed by Sports Illustrated to predict the 2013 season have the Nats winning the World Series, and a fifth has them making it there.

"I think they're as good as anyone in baseball," ESPN analyst John Kruk said in a conference call this week. "If they don't get to the World Series this year, they should look at it as a disappointment."

Those are heady expectations for any team. But the national media have lauded Washington for a common-sense offseason. The Nats needed a leadoff hitter and someone who could play center field. They traded top pitching prospect Alex Meyer to Minnesota for Denard Span, who can get on base at a reasonable clip, is a fine defensive player and has the speed to steal bases.

That pushed Bryce Harper to left field, an easier defensive position, and the team traded Michael Morse to replenish a farm system diminished by trades for Span and Gio Gonzalez. Worried about fatigue in the bullpen after Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard faltered late last season, Washington splurged on closer Rafael Soriano for $14 million. That's usually an idea panned by critics with the lone exception for a team with realistic expectations of winning a title.

"On paper, this is one of the top two or three teams in baseball," said ESPN analyst Orel Hershiser, who noted he also chose ace Stephen Strasburg to win the NL Cy Young Award in his first full healthy season back from Tommy John surgery with no innings restrictions.

Both the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies will have something to say about that, obviously. In the Sports Illustrated poll, all seven of its writers picked the Nats to win the NL East title for the second year in a row. The Braves retooled around the Upton brothers -- Justin, a trade acquisition from Arizona, and B.J., a free agent signed from Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, the Phillies are intent on regaining their crown after five straight division titles and still have one of the sport's best rotations if ace Roy Halladay is healthy. It will make for an intriguing pair of rivalries.

"You have to throw the Braves in there, too, because the Braves have been as good as anyone over the last two years," Kruk said. "But I think the Nationals are going to have some staying power like the Phillies have had starting in 2007 because of their youth, because of their pitching, because obviously their willingness to spend money and go out and do what they have to do to put a winning team out there."