(Jamie Squire/GETTY IMAGES)

A tough division would turn into perhaps the most difficult gauntlet in baseball. The Nationals would play 18 games against each of the Phillies and Marlins, owners of the nastiest pitching staff and fiercest lineup in baseball, respectively.

It would be a jarring move for Pujols to land in Miami and its new stadium, but Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo is resolved not to base his decision on any signings or deals other teams make.

“We’ve got to stay on track,” Rizzo said. “We have to do what we’re going to do. We can’t knee-jerk and react to what a team in our division is doing, other than we always have the outlook of improving.

“It’s a tough division. It really is. It’s getting tougher by the minute, it seems. We have to stay our course and be focused on what we need to do to improve. We can’t be quote-unquote ‘keeping up with the Joneses,’ if you will. We need to worry about our own business and improve ourselves. We need to stay focused and keep our plan on track, keep always in sight what our vision is in the long-term.”

The Marlins will have an affect, however, in regard to how the Nationals’ offseason proceeds. If Pujols chooses the Marlins over the Cardinals, the Marlins would then shift their attention – and all the money they suddenly want to throw around – to starting pitching, most likely Mark Buehrle. The Marlins being in play for Buehrle, of course, would make it tougher on the Nationals to sign him.

The toughening division will make it harder for the Nationals to continue their rise, which currently consists of consecutive seasons with 10-win increases. They will probably not start doing cartwheels and exchanging high fives if Pujols comes to the NL East, but outwardly the Nationals welcomed the challenge.

“Some people going out there and trying to make a big splash,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I like it. I think American League East, National League East are the two strongest divisions in baseball. I like going up against the best. It makes it more fun when you win.”

Said Rizzo: “The Phillies are at the top of the mountain in our division. They’re the team that we shoot for. They seem to keep rolling on and keep getting better also. It’s a tough division, but we like where we’re at. We think we’re improving. We think we’re going to be competitive in a very competitive division. And we’re going to do it controlled, with our focus in mind, and stay on our plan.”


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