When Davey Johnson, asked Monday what his expectation for the Nationals will be next season, responded that he'd be "sorely disappointed" if they don't contend for the NL pennant, you might have predicted the response to sound something like a pack of laughing hyenas.
Except that's not what you heard, around D.C. or around baseball. The prevailing sentiment across the sport was something along the lines of: "Wow, these guys mean business."
That's not to say the majority of observers out there -- Nationals supporters or not -- honestly believe this franchise is going to seriously contend for a spot in the 2012 World Series. But it does appear most everyone acknowledges it won't be much longer before the Nats will be in position to do just that.
All anyone has to do is look at a roster that will include Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard -- with the promise of Bryce Harper to join the fray at some point -- to realize this will be a good ballclub next season.
And all anyone has to do is look at the high-profile free agents whose names keep getting linked to the Nationals (correctly or incorrectly). There isn't a prominent name out there this winter who doesn't at minimum have the Nats listed as a potential suitor.
The perception of the franchise has changed. Take this for whatever it's worth -- probably not much -- but the gambling website Bodog.com released its first set of 2012 MLB odds yesterday. The Nationals are 30-1 shots to win the World Series next season.
No, that doesn't make them prohibitive favorites. That honor goes to the Phillies, who, despite their disappointing early exit from this postseason, check in at an MLB-best 4-1 to win it all in 2012. But it also doesn't put the Nationals anywhere close to the bottom of the pile, spots now reserved for the likes of the Mariners (60-1), Orioles (75-1) and Astros (100-1).
In fact, the Nationals have been deemed to have the 16th-best odds of winning a championship next season, putting them squarely in the middle of the pack. There's some progress for you.
Vegas odds on Oct. 31, of course, are meaningless. We don't yet know what changes, if any, will be made to any team's roster before Opening Day. But that's not the point here. The point is that for the first time since the franchise arrived in town, the Nationals are going to enter a season with honest-to-god expectations for success.
Had one of the club's previous managers -- Frank Robinson, Manny Acta or Jim Riggleman -- made as bold a proclamation as Johnson did yesterday, he would have been laughed out of town. (Actually, ex-GM Jim Bowden opened spring training in 2008 by proclaiming that his team was "ready to win more games than we lose." A team that was counting on Paul Lo Duca, Lastings Milledge and Wily Mo Pena to play every day wound up losing 102 games.)
But those were different times for this franchise, which was viewed quite differently both from the inside and from the outside. These days, the Nationals have an air of legitimacy to themselves. They're not expected to lose. For the first time, they're expected to win.
And, for the first time, they've got a manager comfortable enough with himself and his team to come right out and say it.