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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Werth, Nationals hungry to mount a title run in 2013

Werth, Nationals hungry to mount a title run in 2013

VIERA, Fla. -- Jayson Werth was not shy with the salsa. He was downright gluttonous with the guacamole. And if protein was his pursuit, well, he had at least half a pound of grilled chicken to scratch that particular itch.

Words really can't do justice to the taco salad Werth created for himself after the Nationals' workout on Wednesday. But suffice to say it took an entire catering tray to carry its contents.

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"The plates," he explained, "are too small."

Werth's mammoth Mexican meal is but one example of the go-big-or-go-home attitude that pervades the Nats these days. For this was a well-stocked, 98-game winner that only got stronger in an aggressive winter in which general manager Mike Rizzo reeled in a legit leadoff man in Denard Span, a worthy back-end rotation gamble in Dan Haren and an established ninth-inning option in Rafael Soriano.

No surprise, then, that the Nats are routinely labeled the deepest team in the game going into 2013 -- a remarkable outlook for a club that suffered consecutive 100-loss seasons in 2008 and '09. All those dead-certain Draft selections from lowly seasons past have coalesced into a cohesive unit, and ownership has granted Rizzo the leeway to plug holes with prominent pieces.

"It's impressive," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, "to do what we've done in six years, coming from a team that was owned by MLB, basically an expansion team, to get to where we're at now. They did things the right way. They started from the ground up, created a strong farm system and the core group of guys here, and now we've become an attractive team for free agents to come to. It's been quite a ride."

Werth, remember, was the first of those big-ticket free agents to climb aboard for the ride.

At seven years, $126 million, how could he not?

Beyond the dollars, though, Werth sensed a sincerity to the Nats' approach when he signed on the dotted line just before the Winter Meetings in 2010. He knew he was but one part of the vision the Nats had for building a winning ballclub, a team that could become the class of the National League East. And as they told Werth in December 2010, the Nats' plan was in place to reach that level in 2013.

Imagine everybody's surprise when that club arrived a year early.

"Here we are," said Werth, looking out at the clubhouse. "Going into the third year [of the contract], we're coming off a 98-win season when we were the best team, arguably, in baseball. I'm not surprised it happened a year earlier than expected, with the amount of talent we have in this room. But that was the vision, and we're now realizing their hard work and their vision."

What is important to note about the Nationals is that it's not hard to envision improvement upon last year's regular season prestige. Certainly, you don't outright expect 100 victories, and the sheer randomness of MLB's postseason format ought to discourage all that "World Series or bust" banter that manager Davey Johnson has shown no shame in promoting.

Look up and down the roster, though, and the "ifs" are not overwhelmingly iffy. Is it that unreasonable to suspect Zimmerman will improve upon an already strong 2012, now that his shoulder doesn't require regular cortisone shots just to keep him afloat? Is it that unreasonable to suspect the inconsistency that inhabited Bryce Harper's colorful rookie year will be, at the least, slightly smoothed over in his sophomore season? Is it that unreasonable to envision 200 innings out of Stephen Strasburg being a net positive? Or to imagine an unrestricted Jordan Zimmermann reaching his ceiling?

With the Nats, then, the storyline is not so much the external additions, appetizing as they may be. Rather, the greatest appeal here is that core group that, one year ago, figured it was pretty good, then went out and proved it and now has a chance to take it up a notch.

"There are probably four or five of those legitimate [in-house] improvements," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "We should be better."

But the guy you wonder about most -- the guy whose salary is the steepest and whose postseason experience is the deepest -- is Werth. It's not that the Nats necessarily need Werth to be the player he was in his Philadelphia prime (at 33, it's probably not realistic); it's that if the Nats get something nearing that guy, from a power perspective, they are going to have an absolutely lethal lineup.

The first season of his massive contract saw Werth hit .232. The second saw him play just 81 games, thanks to a broken wrist sustained in early May. Werth is every bit the clubhouse and community presence the Nats had hoped him to be, but on the field he's contributed just 1.6 wins above a replacement-level player, according to Baseball Reference's calculation.

Werth, though, returned from the wrist woes last season looking quite a bit like his old self, batting .312 with a .394 on-base percentage down the stretch to help the Nats fend off the Braves for the division crown. That's a little more in line with what the Nats are expecting this season.

"What we signed was an all-around kind of player," Rizzo said. "He doesn't put up superstar numbers, and we didn't expect him to when we signed him. But we did expect for him to be a good, well-rounded player, and I think he was that when he came back last year, short of the power numbers. But I see the power numbers rebounding to where they belong and being the five-tool player that plays offense and defense and runs the bases well and has playoff experience and is a guy that gets the hit when you need the hit the most."

Werth got the big hit in Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals last year -- a walk-off home run that ignited a city long starved of such moments of magnitude. Clearly, though, it's the memory of the Game 5 debacle that colors all conversation about this club as it prepares for an NL East title defense.

"I think everyone had a sour taste in their mouth with the way things ended last year," Rizzo said. "A lot of guys' mindset and thought process is to never feel that way again. I can tell you first-hand that it drove me this winter."

And it drives the Nats even in these early days of spring camp, where there is a palpable confidence from last year's successes and a conviction to not leave the job unfinished again.

"All things considered, maybe [Game 5] was a good thing for this team," Werth said. "I don't know how many of these guys have been through adversity. It's been a yellow brick road for a lot of them, just sort of waltzing along. Last year was a character-builder, and we look to build on that."

Werth remains a big building block. And he, like the rest of the Nats, is hungry to get going. But you could probably tell that from his lunch.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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