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Ever-changing NL East remains a beast

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Ever-changing NL East remains a beast

The NL East was, for a good portion of the season's first half, the toughest division in baseball. All five franchises stood at least three games over .500 on June 1, and all looked poised to stay competitive through the remainder of the season.

That, of course, didn't happen. Though the champion Nationals and runner-up Braves each got better over the final four months, the Phillies fell apart in midsummer before a late surge got them back to the .500 mark, while the Mets and Marlins simply fell apart and never recovered.

Where, though, does that leave things heading into the offseason? The Nationals obviously will return loaded in 2013 and should be favored to repeat as division champs. But the Braves, too, will have the bulk of their 94-win club returning to the fold and will be determined to jump into first place and avoid the one-game playoff that killed their season.

The Phillies may continue to get older, but their strong finish will give team executives and players alike reason to think they can make another run. The Mets, on the other hand, remain stuck in the mud with a few elite players (R.A. Dickey, David Wright) but no depth whatsoever.

Which leaves the Marlins as the biggest wild card in the East. (Note: That's wild card in lowercase letters, as opposed to a team that wins one of the league's two Wild Card berths.)

What exactly are they doing down in Miami right now? All those good vibes, the star-studded roster and hundreds of millions of dollars spent both on payroll and a space-age new ballpark have officially vanished into thin air. Gone are Hanley Ramirez, Anibal Sanchez and Heath Bell. And now gone is Ozzie Guillen, who was fired yesterday after one miserable season as manager and $7.5 million still owed to him.

There's still plenty of talent down there on South Beach -- what team wouldn't jump at the chance to build around Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Reyes? -- but there doesn't appear to be any direction. Is owner Jeffrey Loria going to go out and splurge on free agents once again this winter, or will he gut the roster even further and start over from scratch?

Who will succeed Guillen as manager? And what, if any, positive impact can he have when his owner calls every shot?

Despite their continued dysfunction, the Marlins remain a major thorn in the Nationals' side. Their overall winning percentage over the last five years is a sub-par .485. Their winning percentage against the Nationals over that same span is a staggering .663.

So whether anyone believes the Fish will be a legitimate contender next season, you better believe the Nationals should treat them like they are.

In the end, it's hard to imagine the NL East won't be an even tougher division in 2013. All five teams will have reason to believe they can be better next year than they were this year.

That won't make the Nationals' challenge any easier. But, if nothing else, it should convince their front office they can't simply show up for spring training and expect to repeat as division champs.

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Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan Rodriguez becomes first former Nationals player to be voted into Hall of Fame

Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez became the first former Nationals player (2005-present) to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. He was inducted in his first year of eligibility, marking the 52nd first-ballot hall of famer in history. 

Rodriguez, who was the first free agent signed by current Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, played the final two seasons of his career with Washington in 2010-11. During his time in D.C. he hit .254 six homers and 68 RBI. Pudge's greatest contribution to the Nationals came from his leadership and work ethic. He guided Stephen Strasburg through his rookie season and also helped develop Wilson Ramos so he could pass the torch to him. 

During his 21-year career, Pudge made 14 all-star teams, won 13 gold gloves, won seven silver slugger awards, led his league in caught-steeling percentage nine times, and was named American League MVP in 1999 with the Texas Rangers. He became a World Series champion in 2003 with the Florida Marlins. Pudge's 13 gold gloves are the most ever by a catcher, and his 2,844 career hits are the most ever by a player who appeared in 50 percent or more of their career games as a catcher.  

In addition to Rodriguez, former Montreal Expos great Tim Raines was inducted to the Hall of Fame. Raines is the franchise leader (Expos/Nationals) in walks (793), runs (947), stolen bases (635) and triples (82). Raines was an all-star seven times and he won a silver slugger in 1986 with the Expos. He is the only player in MLB history with at least 100 triples, 150 homers and 600 RBI in a career, and the only player to steal at least 70 bases in six consecutive seasons. 

Related: Bryce Harper wants Nationals to spend money on players, not team store

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Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper wants Nationals to invest in Matt Wieters, Greg Holland more than facilities

Bryce Harper isn't one to keep his opinions to himself. The Nationals slugger is outspoken about what he wants, whether that's to "Make Baseball Fun Again" or to make at least $400 million on his next contract

On Wednesday, he gave his take on how the Nats should be investing their money this summer. Here's Harper responding to a tweet from ESPN's Jim Bowden.

Harper's message: Players over everything else. Sorry, gift shop. 

It's plain to see where the 2015 NL MVP is going with this. Obviously, he wants as much talent around him as possible for a chance to win the World Series. 

Matt Wieters, a four-time All-Star catcher, and Greg Holland, a two-time All-Star closer, could be significant additions to Washington's roster. 

Harper is set to become a free agent in 2018, at which point an organization like the New York Yankees will be prepared to offer him both a massive salary and a massive investment in the players around him.

The slugger probably hopes his current team will try to surround him with winning pieces in an effort to keep him. But if a report about the Nationals' reaction to his contract demands proves accurate, they may have another agenda. 

There's Harper drama around the Nationals? Just a regular Wednesday here in Washington.

MORE NATIONALS: Nationals avoid arbitration with Harper, three others