The Nationals’ top stories in 2012

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The past year brought undeniable change to the Nationals, an irrevocable and joyous transformation. Now that they have been this good, there is no going back to the way it was when they were so bad. They may not always spray champagne and challenge 100 victories. But they will always make you care.

The 2012 Nationals convinced Washington to fall in love with baseball. They made strangers argue on the Metro about pitching changes and innings limits. They turned a one-hit wonder from the ’80s into a sing-along anthem. They forced expectant parents to discuss the merits of “Harper” as a girl’s name. And in their final, excruciating act they let a fan base understand what that love may cost.

There will never be another year like this one. The Nationals may win the World Series, and it will not feel quite like 2012. It was all fresh and new and it all came together so improbably fast, for the players and the fans. Now come expectations and pay raises and free agency and players wondering about playing time. The chemistry will be different now, more complicated, and the stakes will be higher. The regular season will be less giddy fun, more preamble to the postseason. Savor what just happened, no matter how it ended. 

I am betting this year will be remembered far more for what led up to their Game 5 collapse than the collapse itself. That may not be the case next year, not for a team whose manager has declared “World Series or Bust” as an unofficial slogan. It will be fascinating to see how the Nationals take their next step.

First, here is a look back at the top 10 stories that shaped the past year with, to borrow a phrase from Davey Johnson, an eye on tomorrow.

10. Adam LaRoche redeems himself

In the spring, Davey Johnson openly talked about sitting LaRoche against left-handed starters in favor of Mark DeRosa at first base. LaRoche quickly made that notion obsolete and proved himself fully healed from 2011 shoulder surgery. His 33 homers helped him win the Silver Slugger, and his slick defense earned him his first Gold Glove. Even without his stabilizing effect in the clubhouse, it was a career year.

Best-case for the Nationals in 2013: The Nationals and LaRoche hammer out a deal in the next week or so, the Nationals land a decent pitching prospect in return for Michael Morse and LaRoche slaps a nearly identical season next year.

Worst-case 2013: A team comes out of nowhere to offer LaRoche a three-year deal and he leaves the team he wanted to play for. As LaRoche thrives, injuries again derail Morse and Tyler Moore shows he’s still a year away from becoming an everyday player.

9. Alex Meyer traded for Denard Span

For the second straight year, the Nationals announced themselves as a team more concerned about winning now than about stockpiling prospects. They left themselves without any high-level starting pitching prospects, but they solved their longstanding issue in center field with a 28-year-old under contract for the next three years.

Best-case 2013: Span’s speed and smarts give the Nationals the best defensive outfield in baseball, and as he matches his career-best .392 on-base percentage he provides a leadoff threat the Nationals have never had before.

Worst-case 2013: It turns out Span’s performance away from Target Field is 2012 – a slash line of .235/.278/.315 – is a legitimate concern and not just a fluke. Span struggles to adjust in his new home as Meyer tears through Class AA for the Twins.

8. Ian Desmond, all-star

He led the league in errors in 2010. He was almost unplayable offensively for the first half of 2011. And in 2012, Ian Desmond may have been the best shortstop in the major leagues. Even if he missed five weeks, Desmond was perhaps the Nationals’ most valuable player with 25 homers and an .845 OPS.

Best-case 2013: Desmond, at 27, only gets better. He wins a Gold Glove, hits 30 home runs and even ups his walk rate to push his on-base percentage to .350. He becomes one of the very best players in baseball at a premium position.

Worst-case 2013: Desmond does not necessarily regress, but more of his fly balls die on the warning track and his luck on balls in play – a .332 BABIP in 2012 – reverses. The Nationals are still happy to have him, but Desmond fades into the middle of the pack among everyday shortstops.

Jeff Roberson/AP

7. Gio Gonzalez validates Mike Rizzo’s trade

At the very end of 2011, Rizzo sapped one of the best farm systems in baseball by sending four potential major leaguers to Oakland. Gonzalez needed to be an ace for the deal to pay off, and he was. Gonzalez finished third in Cy Young voting, a combination of overwhelming stuff and constant smiling.

Best-case 2013: Gonzalez shakes off his disappointing playoff starts and again provides an electric, left-handed counterpart for Stephen Strasburg. He continues his trend of walking fewer batters each year of his career, and he again strikes out a batter per inning while holding opponents to an average somewhere near the Mendoza line.

Worst-case 2013: Gonzalez’s shaky Game 5 performance is a sign of things to come – he has the stuff to dominate but not the nerve to lead a staff. National League hitters also learn to lay off his curveball after getting more looks at him, and his walk rate surges. His best year with the Nationals turns out to be his first.

6. Ryan Zimmerman signs an extension

The face of the franchise becomes a National for life with a six-year, $100 million contract extension, and it’s No. Six? It was that kind of year. The Nationals could not have asked for anything more from Zimmerman, on the field or off, since they chose him with their first-ever draft pick in 2005. Now he’ll stay in Washington – either at third base or, in the future, first base – through 2019.  

Best-case 2013: If healthy, Zimmerman has typically played at the level of an MVP candidate. Well, he’ll stay healthy all year and finish in the top three. Offseason surgery and rehab on his shoulder erases questions about his throwing for good, and the Nationals start to re-think his eventual transition to first base.

Worst case 2013: Zimmerman’s shoulder still isn’t right, and his erratic throwing becomes an immediate concern. By the end of the season, after which Zimmerman has spent another couple weeks on the disabled list, the Nationals decide they need to move him to first base by 2014.

5. Bryce Harper beats the hype

The Nationals’ center fielder should have been a freshman in college this year. Instead, Harper was an infusion of everything the Nationals needed: left-handed offense, youthful energy, defense without abandon in center field, running without fear on the bases. He stole home, smacked down clown questions and garnered the nickname Bam Bam for hitting himself in the head with a bat. He hit .270/.340/.477, won rookie of the year and was the Nationals’ best hitter for the final month of the season.

Best-case 2013: There are few comparables for a player of Harper’s age and ability, but two of them – Mike Trout and Alex Rodriguez – both punched up legendary seasons at age 20. Harper will join them. After blasting 38 home runs with an OPS over 1.000, Harper wins the NL MVP.

Worst-case 2013: The pattern of Harper’s rollercoaster streaks and slumps this season isn’t quite finished. Harper adjusted to NL pitchers down the stretch, but they figure him out again in 2013. He still has great moments, but his final stats look awfully familiar to 2012’s.

4. Jayson Werth keeps the season alive

If you are looking for a single moment, this was as great as it has gotten in Washington since baseball returned. On Oct. 11, Werth led off the bottom of the 10th inning against Lance Lynn. He battled for 13 pitches, until Lynn finally gave in with a fastball over the plate. With one swing, Werth capped Washington’s best at-bat in at least 80 years.

Best-case 2013: The symbol of Werth leading the Nationals carries over to next season. After he returned from his broken wrist, Werth was one of the toughest outs in the National League. He is again in 2013, this time for a full, healthy season.

Worst-case 2013: No matter what happens with Werth, the moment will never change. Really, even if Wert reverts to his from the first half of 2011, it couldn’t spoil his walk-off.

3. Game 5

I am not going to ruin your New Year’s Eve. Click here for details if you want.

Best-case 2013: The collapse creates within the Nationals a resolve only a loss like that can create. Drew Storen was born with a closer’s mentality, and he has erased the ninth inning months before he shows up in Viera. The game is a rallying cry when the Nationals play the Cardinals again the NLDS – and sweep them.

Worst-case 2013: The collapse lingers over the entire season. Storen is never the same – the patient Cardinals’ hitters and the flare from Pete Kozma haunt him. Teammates never quite trust Gio Gonzalez the same way again after he squandered the first three runs of a 6-0 lead. The wound never heals, leading to a malaise for the first half of the season.

2. Stephen Strasburg gets shut down

No, really, I am not going to ruin your New Year’s. Click here. Or here. Or here.

Best-case 2013: Strasburg is, in the parlance of our times, a beast. He finally can focus without crazy hype or rehab from elbow surgery or an impending innings limit hanging over him. He can just pitch, and he runs away with the Cy Young after throwing 210 innings, the National League’s answer to Justin Verlander. At 25, he is the best pitcher in baseball, period.

Worst-case 2013: No measure or precaution could overcome the fickle reality of pitching or the star-crossed nature of Strasburg’s career. After a lights-out start, Strasburg’s arm betrays him again. He spends time on the disabled list. The Nationals hold their breath. … Okay, back to not ruining your NYE.

1. The best team in baseball

The overreaching story of the 2012 was really all the stories put together. Seven mostly wretched seasons suddenly led to the Nationals standing atop the entire sport. Their young players stepped forwards, their scouts looked smart and their front office seemed visionary. Powered by Davey Johnson’s swaggering folksiness, the Nationals won 98 games, clinched the National League East and scored the best record in baseball.

Best case: It is clear who owns the most talented roster in baseball after the Nationals finish April 20-7. They never look back from there – Harper is incredible, Dan Haren is his old self, Wilson Ramos picks up where he left off in 2011, Danny Espinosa blossoms like Desmond did a year ago, and on and on. Johnson ends his managerial career with a World Series title and a ticket to the Hall of Fame, all World Series and no bust.

Worst-case 2013: The Nationals never recapture the magic from 2012. Faced with new expectations, they start slow and struggle to play up to the level of their talent. The Phillies remind everyone they still have Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels and strike back. The Nationals win 89 games, enough to make it into the wild-card playoff and lose. It is a bitter end for Johnson and leaves so many Nationals at a crossroads.  But, even then, at least you will care. The Nationals, for the foreseeable future, matter.

Honorable mention: John Lannan bids adieu; Wilson Ramos’s ugly injury; Dan Haren chooses the Nationals; Mike Rizzo slams Cole Hamels; the fall of the Phillies; Bo Porter leaves to manage the Astros; Tyler Moore and Steve Lombardozzi emege.  

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