With the return of young talent like Stephen Strasburg, the future looks bright for the Nationals. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The celebration had begun yielding to goodbyes Wednesday evening in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse. General Manager Mike Rizzo circled the room, stopping at each locker to talk. He told the players to come to spring training hungry, that preparation for the 2012 season began “on the plane ride home.”

The strong finish — 14-4 over the last 18 games — the Nationals basked in after their finale provided a byproduct unknown here since baseball returned: heightened expectations. The Nationals’ young core combined with the planned offseason addition of a leadoff bat and another starting pitcher could make the Nationals — yes, the Nationals — a trendy postseason pick for next season.

The Nationals finished third in the National League East, 211 / 2 games behind the 102-win Philadelphia Phillies. They will still confront loftier expectations next season, externally and internally. And they’re fine with that.

“It’s cool to have expectations,” closer Drew Storen said. “We’ve taken a step in the right direction, and we expect to take another step next year. We expect to contend. We expect to play with the Phillies and beat the Phillies. We don’t want to just be a Cinderella team. We want to be a team to beat. That’s the difference.”

The Nationals surpassed most expectations this season by winning 80 games despite myriad obstacles. First baseman Adam LaRoche played admirably, but poorly, through a torn labrum in his left shoulder for 45 games and then missed the rest of the season. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman sat for two months after undergoing abdominal surgery. Ace Stephen Strasburg rehabbed from Tommy John surgery for all but the final month. Big-ticket free agent Jayson Werth slumped until his average hit .211 in mid-July and finished with below-league average numbers. Oh, and their manager resigned after their best winning streak in six years.

The Nationals surged to an 11-win improvement behind the accelerated development of young players who became part of their bedrock. Jordan Zimmermann posted a 3.18 ERA in his first full season following Tommy John surgery. Second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos, both 24, could each receive consideration for National League rookie of the year. Storen, 24, saved 43 games despite starting the season as a setup reliever. Shortstop Ian Desmond, 25, slashed his 2010 error total from 34 to 23 and, after a brutal first half offensively, finished the season on an offensive tear batting leadoff. Brad Peacock, Tommy Milone and Ross Detwiler pitched their way into competing for a 2011 rotation spot.

Their emergence allows for a measure of certainty. The Nationals will aim to upgrade the top of their order with an outfielder who excels at reaching base and their rotation with a third top starter to pair with Zimmermann and Strasburg.

But the general outline of their 2012 lineup is set, an important departure from the past. Wednesday, Zimmerman chatted with Manager Davey Johnson about past spring trainings. The Nationals would gather with eight to 10 roster spots undecided, and “you just can’t win like that,” Zimmerman said. “People were talking like, ‘Oh, they’ll be better this year.’ When you’ve got eight jobs open in spring training, you’re not going to be better. Now, legitimately, we can say we’ve got maybe two spots that are going to be competed for. That is obviously a positive.

“The key is we don’t really have that many things to address. We have a real good thing going, but we can always add to it here and there.”

Zimmerman, adhering to conventional wisdom, believes the Nationals could use a leadoff hitter and perhaps one more starting pitcher. Around baseball, some think the Nationals need to add a left-handed bat in the outfield. Zimmerman countered that notion with one of the most delicious subplots of the 2012 season — the possible ascension to the majors of 2010 first overall pick Bryce Harper.

“Everyone says we need another left-handed bat,” Zimmerman said. “If LaRoche comes back healthy, that’s a pretty good step up. And who knows when Bryce will be ready? That’s a pretty good left-handed bat on the way. That’s going to be the toughest part. Because if you go out and get a corner outfielder that hits left-handed, then, not to say Bryce is ready, but obviously it’s not going to be a long-term deal. I think if we’re only talking about two or three things, that’s a positive thing.”

Because the Nationals want to upgrade at those two spots does not guarantee they will. Last offseason, Rizzo made his priority adding a front-line starting pitcher and could not deliver because of a thin market. He agreed in principle to a trade with the Kansas City Royals that would have given the Nationals Zack Greinke.

That near-deal offers a warning for this offseason in the form a baseball maxim: Sometimes the best trade is the one that doesn’t happen. If Greinke had agreed to the deal, the Nationals would have sent Storen, Espinosa and Zimmermann to the Royals while giving Greinke a $100 million contract extension.

“I keep saying, I would like to just start over and do it again,” Werth said. “Take the guys we’ve got, let’s do it again. I’m assuming that the team is going to try to improve itself. That was one thing they told me when I came here, that they were going to continue to seek the right kind of fits for the team. I expect them to do at least some upgrading. But at the same time, I would take my chances with this team that we have right now in a 162-game season. Let’s get going. I would do that. Especially when you get [Strasburg] for a full year. [Zimmermann] is not going to be in an innings limit. The more we play together, the better we’re going to get, and we’ve got talent that’s so high.”

The Nationals split for the winter Wednesday thinking they will contend. The next time they gather in the spring, they know those watching them will expect the same.

“The bar,” Rizzo said, “has been raised.”