Nats carry huge expectations into opener with Marlins

Expectations are through the roof in the nation's capital.

The Washington Nationals start what has been dubbed a "World Series or bust" season on Monday against the new look Miami Marlins at Nationals Park.

After finishing in the bottom of the NL East six times in seven seasons from 2004-2010, the Nationals began a slow climb up the standings with a third- place finish in 2011. And though that 80-81 record wasn't much to write home about, it did show that the Nats were headed in the right direction.

Not too much was expected out of Washington in 2012, a campaign that figured to serve as seasoning for the returning Stephen Strasburg from Tommy John surgery and rookie Bryce Harper, a pair of No. 1 overall picks from 2009 and '10 respectively charged with leading the franchise into a successful future.

It ended up being much more as Strasburg was dominant until being shut down due to an innings limit and Harper won the NL Rookie of the Year award. Gio Gonzalez led all of baseball with 21 wins in his first season with the Nationals and Tyler Clippard saved the bullpen, while Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond all provided pop at the plate to help Harper.

The result was an 18-win improvement and the franchise's first trip to the playoffs since the Montreal Expos advanced to the NLCS in the 1981 split season. Washington's 98-64 record was also the best in baseball, but it failed to get out of the NLDS, falling in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals after failing to hold leads of 6-0 and 7-5 in the series-deciding contest.

Strasburg will be on the hill Monday, as he begins the season unrestricted.

"Harper hit .270 last year. He had a rough stretch. And through all that (shutdown) thing at the end, Stras had some rough starts. I look at them to weather the bad times they went through last year. That's why we're very optimistic about this year," manager Davey Johnson said.

That brief taste of success left the Nats wanting more. They were able to get Johnson, winner of the NL Manager of the Year award, to return for the 2013 season before the 70-year-old moves into a consultant role next year and were big players in free agency.

Washington hit each aspect, adding center fielder Denard Span, right-handed starter Dan Haren and closer Rafael Soriano to form one of the deeper teams in the league and also brought back first baseman Adam LaRoche to fill out the meat of the order.

While the Nats are the odds-on favorites to repeat as NL East champions, not much is expected from a Miami team that underwent a complete overhaul this offseason.

Marlins fans had seen radical moves at the end of a season before, but those usually came after a World Series title, not after a year in which they were favored to make the playoffs and ultimately disappointed, going 68-83.

Miami stunned the baseball world with a shocking 12-player trade on Nov. 19 that sent Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, starter Josh Johnson, outfielder Emilio Bonifacio and catcher John Buck to the Toronto Blue Jays for a collection of mostly young prospects and a removal of around $160 million in salary off the books.

It also came after the Marlins had previously dealt Hanley Ramirez, Omar Infante, Anibal Sanchez and Gaby Sanchez during the 2012 regular season.

Owner Jeffrey Loria, who had already gotten taxpayers to finance a large part of the new stadium, became public enemy No. 1, but his defense cry has been that a high payroll didn't work so it was time for another youth movement.

The moves made this winter certainly didn't bring much excitement unless the likes of Juan Pierre, Placido Polanco and Jon Rauch get your blood flowing.

First-year manager Mike Redmond may have his work cut out for him, as he takes over for Ozzie Guillen, who was fired after a tumultuous first season to say the least with the Marlins.

"It's a new start. It's a clean slate," Redmond said. "I think it's going to be an easy sell. The sell is the opportunity. There has been so much change and guys are so young. This reminds me a lot of '98, when I got to the big leagues. It was a great opportunity for us. Sure, there were good days and bad days, but we all went through it together. When we won the World Series in 2003, it was so satisfying with all that we had gone through."

One of the few Marlins fans will recognize from last year's club will be on the mound, as righty Ricky Nolasco makes his second Opening Day start. Nolasco, whose 76 big league wins are more than the rest of the Marlins' projected rotation combined (67), was 12-13 last season with a 4.48 ERA.

"He's the leader on that staff," Redmond said of his ace. "I know he's excited about it. He has that experience. He knows how to pitch. He knows the league."

The Marlins and Nationals split 18 head-to-head games last year.