VIERA, Fla. - The Washington Nationals lost 102 times last year, meaning they filed disconsolately up the tunnel while the opposing team high-fived on the field more often than any team in baseball.

On the plus side, almost nobody was paying attention. The team's telecasts barely caused a blip in the ratings. Final attendance ranked ahead of only the Reds, Pirates and Marlins in the National League.

And just when the Nationals might have started considering Hey, At Least It Can't Get Any Worse! as their new marketing slogan it, uh, well, got worse.

Spring training was barely under way before lightning rod general manager Jim Bowden found himself embroiled in a controversy over skimming signing bonuses from Latin American prospects and related offenses. Bowden resigned under pressure on March 1.

If nothing else, all of the above allows the Nationals to play the expectations game as they prepare to compete in the beastly National League East this season. Instead, they're openly setting their sights high.

"We're going to surprise a lot of people," insisted backup outfielder Willie Harris before an exhibition at Space Coast Stadium. "I'm not saying we're going to be first place or anything like that. I don't want to put a tab on us or anything. But I think we're going to be able to compete. I think we'll be able to play right along with the Phillies, right along with the Mets."

Well, it's been scientifically proven that the combination of swaying palm trees and No. 30 sunscreen can lead to irrational optimism. But there are reasons to suspect that Washington at least won't be a pushover this season.

Exhibit A is slugger Adam Dunn, one of Bowden's last official acquisitions, signed to a 2-year, $20 million contract just as camps were opening across Florida and Arizona.

Many in baseball raised their eyebrows over the size of the deal, at a time when many former All-Stars remain unemployed. After all, just a year earlier club president Stan Kasten indicated that the organization's blueprint was to avoid expensive free-agent signings until the player or players they signed were seen as the final pieces to putting the team in the playoffs.

"I think it's exciting for all of us," said face-of-the-franchise third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. "Putting a guy like that in the middle of your order, it makes everyone around him better and gives us a chance to win."

Mike Rizzo, the assistant general manager who is handling the day-to-day baseball decisions along with Kasten, said the move had to be made both from a baseball and a credibility standpoint.

"He's the middle-of-the-lineup bat that we really needed," he explained. "We were extremely righthanded. And he gives us not only the 40-home-run-type bat we were looking for, but he also gives it to us from the left side. So it not only balances out our lineup but it gives us an impact guy with a track record of doing it over the last 5 years. Whereas the other bats we have, [Lastings] Milledge and [Elijah] Dukes and those types of guys, we think have the ability to do so in the near future, but they haven't proved it yet at the major league level.

"Credibility-wise is one thing. But to compete in this tough, tough division, you've got to improve yourself. And I think we had to do something not only to show our fans in Washington that we were going to be serious players in the National League but to say something to the players we currently have on the roster. To say, 'We're trying, too.' "

Washington scored just 641 runs in 2008 with a last-in-the-league .373 slugging percentage.

The Nationals also took advantage of the Florida Marlins' annual need to shed salary by picking up lefthanded starter Scott Olsen and outfielder Josh Willingham. They signed righthander Daniel Cabrera, once considered a hot prospect by the Orioles, as a free agent, then added lefthanded reliever Joe Beimel and righthander Julian Tavarez after spring training opened.

Olsen and Cabrera project as the No. 2 and No. 3 starters. "I think we have improved our offense and we have improved our starting pitching," said manager Manny Acta. "The key here is for us to go back and play better defense like we did 2 years ago. Head-to-head maybe we can't slug away with the Phillies and Mets. We need to play better defense because we can't afford to be giving them any outs, which translate into runs and then we'll have a tough time matching up with them."

Like every team, the Nationals talk about avoiding injuries. Unlike every team, they lost every 2008 Opening Day starter except shortstop Cristian Guzman for a significant period of time because of injuries.

First baseman Nick Johnson, for example, has played more than 100 games just twice in the last five seasons. But if he can stay off the disabled list - and doesn't get traded - along with Dunn and Zimmerman, it gives Washington a potentially formidable heart of the order.

"We had so many injuries last year," said Zimmerman, who missed 2 months with back problems. "That's just one of those things that happens. You've got to forget about it and move on and worry about this year."

Added Harris: "I wouldn't say we struggled a lot, because we missed a lot of our big dogs. We had a bunch of guys go down. If you think about it, I'm not a home run hitter and I almost led the team in home runs [with 13]."

At least the attention is now directed back to the field instead of rumors swirling around the general manager.

"My job, along with [Kasten's] is to get the focus back on baseball. That's what we're doing. We're all business here. It's all baseball, all the time. We're focusing on the future, not on the past. We think we have a bright future and it begins now," Rizzo said.

"We're ready to move on and attack this '09 season and try to put the best possible product on the field." *