- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2015


VIERA, Fla. — If you gave truth serum to general managers, they would tell you in a utopian world, players would be paid per game. You play well, you get paid to play another game.

You stink? Save your meal money. Tomorrow’s another game.

That, of course, is a system that will never happen. Contracts — in particular, guaranteed contracts — eliminate the carrot and the stick system.

The next best thing, though, is playing for one of those guaranteed contracts — players in the final year of a deal and looking to cash in on another deal.

The Washington Nationals are in the enviable position of having four star players — Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister and Denard Span — in contract years.

No one is suggesting that the franchise will be better off if any, or all, of these four players depart at the end of the season. But if all four of those players want to get paid like they believe they ought to be compensated, then all four will be pressured to have, if not career years, highly productive seasons.

After watching the four of them during Tuesday’s workout, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said he doesn’t believe the prospect of having those players on the field this season facing free agency — if none are signed to new deals before the start of the season — will impact their play.

“All those guys are ultra-competitive and professionals,” Williams said.

But they are human, and we’ve seen in sports the impact of playing for a new contract. After all, they are looking at free agency because some or all of them have been offered a lot of money to stay with Washington at some point during contract talks, and they said no, we want more.

They won’t get more if they don’t have a good to great 2015 season.

It may not be the best system for future long-term success, but, hey, if George Allen was running the Nationals, he would let them know that “The Future is Now.”

It’s time to win ­— as in win it all.

The 2012 playoff season is long in the distance of the rearview mirror, followed up by the 2013 disappointment, and, still fresh in everyone’s minds, last year’s National League East division title, which was followed up by another first-round exit in the playoffs — this time to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants.

No one talks anymore about how far this franchise has come from its back-to-back 100-loss seasons. Now the discussion surrounding the Nationals is how short this franchise comes up during championship seasons.

Having four star players facing departure at the end of the season only punctuates the sense of urgency for this team — one already identified as the most talented in the majors.

I asked Rizzo which would he rather have — a roster full of players under long-term contracts or 25 guys on one-year deals. He hedged his bets and said he’d prefer a mixture.

“You want some guys under contract, but too many locks you in,” he said. “And flexibility is power.”

In Washington’s case, flexibility is top shortstop prospect Trea Turner, acquired as a player to be named in an offseason deal with San Diego that was heralded as one of the best of the winter. Flexibility is having two of the top starting pitching prospects in Minor League Baseball, Lucas Giolito and A.J. Cole. And flexibility is having the best outfield prospect in baseball, Michael Taylor, waiting in the wings as well.

Rizzo wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a roster full of one-year contract players. “That’s too many,” he said, and he’s right. But that’s a hungry roster.

In 2003, the Florida Marlins came out of nowhere to win the World Series. Of the 25 guys going into that season on the roster, 24 of them were not under contract for 2004 — including Ivan Rodriguez, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal, played 144 games, drove in 85 runs and led the young Marlins pitching staff to the championship.

Yes, they collapsed after that — because they traded some players, lost others in free agency and lacked the power of flexibility in their farm system.

Washington has that power — and just enough key players with their futures on the line to create a championship hunger.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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