- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2015

VIERA, Fla. — On a sleepy Monday morning at Space Coast Stadium, the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse was mostly empty. A team bus rolled south down Interstate 95 toward Jupiter, Florida, for an afternoon game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Only those needing rehab or rest were left behind.

In the corner of the clubhouse, Ian Desmond sat on a stool in front of his locker. Doug Fister ambled across the room to join him. Jordan Zimmermann tapped away at his phone. In the outfield, sweat dripped off Denard Span’s shirt as he ran sprints with a trainer.

In moments like these, significance gets lost in monotony. Fister doesn’t look across the clubhouse at Zimmermann and think about how, in all likelihood, neither of them will be here next spring. Span doesn’t pause his workout to think about his pending free agency. Desmond doesn’t look around the room and dwell on the fact that this, his 10th spring training in Viera, will probably be his last.

But the significance is still there. The Nationals are not just odds-on favorites to win the World Series in 2015. Whether they choose to acknowledge it or not, when they take the field for Opening Day on Monday, they will be entering a unique one-year window.

With the addition of marquee starter Max Scherzer, and four core players due to receive lucrative contracts in free agency next winter, this season presents a fleeting chance. It is not the only opportunity for an organization with depth and talent throughout the minor leagues. But it might be the best.

“I think the Nationals have an interesting dilemma because a lot of their core players can be superstars, and they’re all kind of coming around at the same time,” said John Smoltz, a Hall of Fame pitcher with the Atlanta Braves who now works as an MLB Network game and studio analyst. “The window for [fielding] a financially responsible team is probably closing a little bit.”

After winning two National League East division titles in the past three years, expectations and pressure are nothing new. Over time, however, the Nationals have learned to deal with them. Gone are the days of Davey Johnson’s motto of “World Series or bust.” There’s no time to consider the big picture. Instead, there’s Bryce Harper: “I don’t look back, I don’t look forward.” General manager Mike Rizzo: “There’s no time for stepping back and taking grand views.” Manager Matt Williams: “It rents space in your brain where it shouldn’t.”

“I think that’s one of the things that experience has taught us, that all that stuff takes care of itself,” closer Drew Storen said. “If you start worrying, it’s like the 18th tee in golf, right? You go up there in the tee box like, ‘Oh, it’s my last drive, I’m going to really swing hard and hit it.’ You’re going to hit it [out of bounds]. You’re definitely going to be OB. If you hit it nice and easy, just take your swing, you’re probably going to be right down the middle.”

Windows of opportunity

The 2014 season had just come to an abrupt end when Desmond stood at his locker.

“We’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of good ballplayers in here, a lot of good ballplayers that are under contract and coming back for a while,” Desmond said. “The window isn’t closed, but it is closing.”

In a sport built upon routine, players rarely step back and openly examine a broad time frame. The only way to get through a 162-game season, like any arduous journey, is to take it “one game at a time.” When Desmond broached the idea of a window, an opportunity for this specific group of players to win a championship together, it countered the usual conversation.

“I’m just, like the rest of us, going to try and focus on the now, which is every day,” Desmond said last week. “I’m not looking at windows now. But last year, at the emotional time, it’s hard to always fight that thought off.”

The Nationals have had the same core group of players since 2012, when they won their first National League East division title and brought postseason baseball back to Washington for the first time in 79 years.

Five of their eight starting position players in 2012 — Desmond, Harper, Wilson Ramos, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman — are still considered starters entering this season. Three of their five starting pitchers from that year — Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez — remain in the rotation.

Of those eight core players, four will be eligible for free agency over the next two years. Several other key pieces, including Span and Fister, will join them.

“Given guys that have the opportunity to be free agents next year, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Williams said. “All we know is that they’re ready to play for our club, and they’re thinking about that and that only. What happens will happen. Right now, we’re just concentrating on Opening Day and winning games and getting to where we want to go.”

Already, the team has seen signs of change. This winter, longtime setup man Tyler Clippard was traded to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Escobar, who will likely begin the season at third base as Anthony Rendon recovers from a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. First baseman Adam LaRoche, who was a strong leader and calming presence during his four seasons in Washington, left as a free agent and signed with the Chicago White Sox.

“There’s windows [in baseball]. It’s been proven for a while,” LaRoche said from Chicago’s spring training facility in Glendale, Arizona. “You have some really good players all at once, they’re going to cost a ton of money down the road and you can’t hang on to all of them. Yeah, they’re in that window now. [But] I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near closing for them. With the money they’re willing to give out, I don’t know who could look at that and say, ‘Oh, they only have a year or two left.’ They’re going to be there for a while.”

Chips on the table

In the bowels of Nationals Park, Scherzer sat at a table with a red tablecloth and smiled. Agent Scott Boras sat to his left. Rizzo and Williams were at his right. His seven-year, $210 million contract had been finalized and signed.

When the four men arrived at Scherzer’s introductory press conference that January afternoon, it was assumed the Nationals would soon trade one of their other starters. Fister and Zimmermann were entering the final year of the contracts. A report suggested that Strasburg was “very much available” in a trade, which Boras strongly denied.

Surely the Nationals couldn’t keep their aces together. Could they?

“Right now, it’s our intention to,” owner Mark Lerner said at the time. “Sometimes opportunities pop up that we don’t know about. But right now, this is the team that’s going to spring training and hopefully will be here on Opening Day.”

That sentiment set a narrative. If the Nationals weren’t mortgaging their present by trading a starter for prospects, then they must be mortgaging the future to win now.

In reality, neither was true. The additions of Scherzer and Escobar strengthened the major-league roster, but the Nationals also bolstered their minor-league system in a three-team trade with the Tampa Bay Rays and San Diego Padres. Rizzo, who is entering his seventh season as the organizational architect, stayed true to his oft-repeated mantra of balancing present needs with the future.

That depth of talent is one of the characteristics that makes the 2015 Nationals unique. They are a 6-to-1 favorite to win the World Series, according to online sportsbook Bovada LV, but they also have the sport’s ninth-ranked minor-league system, according to Baseball America. They are not the 2003 Florida Marlins, who made several blockbuster moves in an obvious win-now push.

“[The Marlins] put it all in for one year, won a championship, and disbanded, right?” Smoltz said. “The Nationals want to be relevant for as long as possible, like most sports franchises. But there comes a point where you have to make decisions financially that just, from a budget standpoint, make sense. Sometimes it may be parting ways with a great young pitcher or two. … You just can’t afford every major contract, you know?”

The lofty expectations, growing list of homegrown stars, stacked starting rotation, uncertain contract situations of several franchise cornerstones — it all makes for a situation that has rarely, if ever, been seen in baseball.

When asked to identify another team that entered a season under similar circumstances, several people in and around the Nationals scratched their heads. Rizzo declined to go there at all.

“I’m going to leave the historical comparisons to you guys,” Rizzo said. “We like the team that we have and we feel good about it. We’re trying to finish spring training and get as healthy as we can and be going in the right direction for Opening Day.”

Remaining grounded

If there’s one thing the Nationals have learned over the past three years, it’s that expectations mean nothing. In both 2012 and 2014, the Nationals roared into the playoffs with World Series dreams and went home after one series. In 2013, they had similarly sky-high hopes and didn’t make the playoffs at all.

“I think that’s when we learned a lot,” Storen said. “We took such a step forward in ‘12. We grinded out, played well, and I think we tried to take another step forward in ‘13 and almost maybe tried to do too much.”

That’s why many players say they don’t view 2015 as an “all-in” season, regardless of what the circumstances may indicate. Ignorance is a solution. Rather than use the expiring contracts of several players as motivation, they view this season as equally important to any other.

“I’m not thinking about the future,” Harper said. “At the end of the year, free agency’s going to roll around for a couple guys in this clubhouse, and whatever they’re going to do, that’s on them. If the Nationals want to have them back, then they’ll have them back. If they don’t, then they’ll be somewhere else.”

Storen has walked the mental tightrope more frequently than most. As a closer, he must train his mind to focus only on the task at hand, not the gravity of the moment or the possible repercussions of failure. A few years ago, those things might have entered his mind, but now he says his focus is only the next game, inning, pitch or at-bat. The cliches exist for a reason.

So, “all-in” for 2015? Call it whatever you want.

“That’s one of those external factors that doesn’t really matter,” Storen said. “Whether it’s ‘all-in’ this year or not, it’s not going to change the way we play. Let’s think about this game. If we take care of what we need to do and stay in our lane, we’ll be fine.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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