Nats expect offense to be better

VIERA, Fla. -- Scan the Washington Nationals' lineup card, and it's hard to imagine their offense being such a wasteland of subpar numbers and missed opportunities for so much of the 2013 season. But the statistics bear it out: At the All-Star break, the Nationals were tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for 13th in the National League in runs scored and also ranked 13th with a .686 team on base percentage.

The Nationals were 16 games out of first place on Aug. 19, and the gratification of a 26-12 finish didn't do much for their spirits when they were sitting at home in October.

"The last two months we played great and scored a ton of runs," Ryan Zimmerman said. "Unfortunately, it took us four months to get to that point. We got off to a slow start and some of us maybe tried to do too much to make up for all the expectations. It was a learning experience for all of us. I think we'll be better this year because of it."

The Nationals should be better primarily because they have too much talent and balance to flounder again. After giving Danny Espinosa two months to work his way out of his mega-funk and losing Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and catcher Wilson Ramos for significant periods because of injury last season, they're also relying on a return to good health.

It all begins with leadoff man Denard Span, who went on a second-half tear with the help of new hitting coach Rick Schu and reeled off a 29-game hitting streak in August and September. Span refrained from taking batting practice for the final month and a half, choosing to do cage work with Schu and take it directly into the games.

"Toward the end of the season, I just let it go and started having fun," Span said. "Rick and I definitely have a connection. We're on the same page and eye to eye. He knows my personality and what I like to do."

Ian Desmond hit 20 homers last season and ranked second to Troy Tulowitzki among shortstops with a .453 slugging percentage. Werth finished 13th in National League MVP voting. Harper should be better now that he's recovered from knee and hip injuries, and Zimmerman ranks third among major-league third basemen in hits (1,243) and doubles (266) since 2006. Add Ramos, Adam LaRoche and former No. 1 pick Anthony Rendon to the equation, and it's a lineup without a noticeable weak spot.

New manager Matt Williams said some elements of the lineup are "flip-floppable." He can plug Rendon into the leadoff spot in place of Span against some left-handed pitchers, and also bat him second, seventh or eighth. Werth can hit anywhere from second through fifth. Harper, Zimmerman, Ramos and LaRoche will also move up or down in the main run-producing spots depending on how they're swinging and the identity of the opposing pitcher on a given day.

Regardless of who hits where, the Nationals expect a drastic improvement over the middle-of-the-pack group that was a drag on their ambitions in 2013.

"I think they all showed at the end of the season what kind of team was here," Williams said. "We expect the same. We've got some really talented guys with a lot of ability, and a potent lineup. I like what I see, for sure."