John Bazemore
March 26, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) Bryce Harper's reaction to the news that the Washington Nationals added Max Scherzer to an already-talented starting staff drew quite a lot of attention.

''I just started laughing,'' Harper famously said. ''I was like, `Where's my ring?'''

Yes, that pretty much sums up where the expectations are for the 2015 Nationals - as expressed by them and by others.

On the first day of full-squad workouts at spring training, reigning NL Manager of the Year Matt Williams posted these words of wisdom in the clubhouse: ''The road to the World Series begins today.''

''We're here to get to that ultimate goal,'' Williams said. ''We're not alone. There's 29 other teams that have the same thought. So that being said, I want to make sure that we understand that that's our goal. That is our goal: to be the last one standing at the end of it.''

The main reason many folks think the Nationals are capable of achieving that goal, even if the team has yet to win a playoff series, is the rotation.

Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner with Detroit, came aboard with a $210 million contract, joining a group that led the majors in ERA last season - right-handers Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, and lefty Gio Gonzalez.

''There's no break'' for an opposing team, new reliever Casey Janssen observed.

It's such a formidable quintet that a guy who won 15 games, had a sub-3.00 ERA and threw nearly 200 innings a year ago, Tanner Roark, is moving to the bullpen.

In 2014, the Nationals won a league-best 96 games and finished atop the underwhelming NL East by a whopping 17 games, but then bowed out in four games in a Division Series against the eventual champs, the San Francisco Giants. Washington's starting pitching wasn't the problem in the postseason; its bullpen and hitting were what led to a second quick playoff exit in three years.

And yet general manager Mike Rizzo allowed those two areas to lose important pieces, trading away the man he called ''maybe the best eighth-inning setup man in the history of the game,'' Tyler Clippard, and letting first baseman Adam LaRoche (team highs of 26 homers, 92 RBIs) leave via free agency.

The hope, presumably, is that hitters such as Harper, Ryan Zimmerman (who replaces LaRoche at first) and Wilson Ramos, who each missed significant chunks of last season, will deliver the numbers they're capable of producing, while opponents have a really hard time scoring much against all the aces Williams will send to the mound.

''It's hilarious having to go in there and face them. It's absolutely stupid,'' Harper said. ''We have the best staff in baseball. I don't care what anybody says.''

Actually, Bryce, that's exactly what pretty much everybody IS saying.

Here are other things to know about the Nationals, who open the season on April 6 at home against the New York Mets:

HEALTH MATTERS: Half of the everyday lineup - outfielders Jayson Werth and Denard Span (both recovering from offseason surgery), third baseman Anthony Rendon and new second baseman Yunel Escobar - missed extended periods of spring training, as did fourth outfielder Nate McClouth. Rendon, Span, Werth and McClouth might all miss opening day. ''You can be as good as you want on paper, but that doesn't mean anything until the end of the year,'' Scherzer said. ''We've got to stay healthy.''

MIGHTY `PEN?: Given their aspirations, October is what really matters for the Nationals, and Drew Storen blew save chances in the 2012 and 2014 playoffs. Still, the closer's job is his entering the season, and Clippard is no longer around to shut down foes in the eighth - or provide ninth-inning backup if needed. Worth watching: Will Aaron Barrett set aside the yips that hit him in the NLDS?

LAST HURRAH: A couple of homegrown franchise cornerstones, Zimmermann and shortstop Ian Desmond, can become free agents after the season, as can Span and Fister. Rizzo could try to sign one or more to long-term deals. He could trade one or more. Or he could decide to let things play out with this group, then move on next offseason. ''With this group of guys,'' Werth said, ''this might be it.''

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Freelancer Carl Kotala in Viera, Fla., contributed to this report.

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