By HOWARD FENDRICH
AP Sports Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Heading into each of the past four seasons, interest in the Washington Nationals -- if there was any interest at all -- was connected in one way or another to Stephen Strasburg.
In 2008: Would the Nationals lose enough games to get the No. 1 pick in the amateur draft? In 2009: With that top spot theirs, would they indeed take Strasburg, then succeed in signing him? In 2010: Would he be on the opening-day roster? If not, when would he get called up? In 2011: When would Strasburg return from elbow surgery? How would he pitch?
Now that Strasburg is healthy and leading an improved rotation, the hard-throwing righty certainly is once again the main reason to keep tabs on Washington in 2012, at least until 19-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper makes his way to the majors. What's new this time around is that the Nationals anticipate they will truly matter in the NL East.
"You could characterize (expectations) as different. We feel good about our club. We're a very competitive team in a very competitive division. We feel we've improved ourselves vastly over the last couple of years," general manager Mike Rizzo said.
"We feel that we've got a good enough team to match up with anybody in our division and the league," Rizzo added. "Our hope is to be playing meaningful games at the end of the season, in September _ and beyond."
A first-time GM who has overhauled the roster since replacing Jim Bowden, Rizzo is hardly the only one thinking that way. Davey Johnson _ a World Series champion as a player and manager and, at 69, currently the oldest skipper in the big leagues -- and various Nationals players have spent the spring talking the talk.
"This is an important year for everybody to do what they're capable of doing," Johnson said. "If that happens, and it's my responsibility to make sure that happens, then we're starting to be a contender and not a pretender."
The thing is, until now, the Nationals didn't really even pretend they were for real. Since moving to the nation's capital from Montreal, the ex-Expos never have finished a season with more wins than losses. Twice, they wound up with more than 100 defeats (which, of course, is how they were able to get Strasburg and Harper).
In 2011, the Nationals went 80-81 and came in third place, their best showing in Washington and putting an end to a three-year stay in last.
Then factor in that they did that with staff ace Strasburg making only five starts when he returned from his right elbow operation; with past All-Star, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger third baseman Ryan Zimmerman limited to 101 games because of injuries; with new right fielder Jayson Werth hitting .232 with 58 RBIs in the first year of his $126 million contract; and with new first baseman Adam LaRoche batting .172 -- yes, .172 -- in 43 games before being sidelined by a bad left shoulder.
"Their track record states that they're a certain caliber of player," Rizzo said. "If we get the career norms from Jayson, Ryan and Adam, we feel really good about our chances."
That's largely because of a pitching staff that added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to the rotation, and righty Brad Lidge to a bullpen already anchored by All-Star setup man Tyler Clippard and star-in-the-making closer Drew Storen.
The offense, meanwhile, didn't get any upgrades and will rely on largely the same cast of characters as a year ago, including left fielder Michael Morse (who delivered team highs of a .303 average, 31 homers and 95 RBIs in a breakout performance), and probably hope for help from Harper, a slugger expected to be called up from Triple-A Syracuse in late spring or early summer.
Like Strasburg, Harper was a No. 1 overall draft choice. Like Strasburg, he's widely considered the top prospect in baseball. And like Strasburg, he'll take a stop-by-stop trip through the minors before joining the Nationals.
"He's very, very close to being in the major leagues as of right now. We want him to go and get a couple hundred more at-bats at the minor league level. I like when players touch each and every level of the minor league system before we deem them ready to play in the big leagues," Rizzo said, explaining why Harper's Washington debut will wait. "I feel that does a lot for their development, it does a lot for their character, and it does a lot for their acceptance when they get to the major league clubhouse."