- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2017

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Fresh pictures line the walls of a long hallway in the bottom of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Among them at the Washington Nationals’ almost-complete spring training home are the stars who pushed them to prominence in a short period. The hair of former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond puffs out from under his cap. Stephen Strasburg begins his windup. Bryce Harper loads at the plate. Max Scherzer delivers from the mound. Jayson Werth celebrates at home plate.

Back at Nationals Park, there is a similar series of photos in the bottom of the stadium — a series that includes shots of players from the era when baseball was reintroduced to the District. A time of losing, building and wondering when there would be a step to the other side. A six-year period that averaged 93 losses and who-is-this-guy questions.

When the Nationals open the 2017 season at home Monday afternoon, they will be pursuing their fourth National League East title in six years. They have, in recent years, flipped from woeful to potent because Harper, Strasburg, Werth and Ryan Zimmerman have been supplemented by Scherzer and Daniel Murphy, among others. They are again the favorites to win the division, both in their minds and in those of the oddsmakers in the desert.

Optimism and high expectations for the Nationals have become as much a part of the rites of spring in Washington as cherry blossoms. But there will be something else in the air when this group begins play in three days: The gnawing sense that the future is now for a star-studded roster facing major turnover in the next two years.

Strasburg remembers what it was like when he was summoned as the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, then followed a season later by Harper. The Nationals’ identity was rooted in losing, a cute sideshow that had brought baseball back to the District.

“I just know my first year — I thought I played with some good guys, but a lot of them aren’t playing anymore,” Strasburg said. “To have back-to-back No. 1 overall picks means you’re not playing well. I think the picks that they did make, not only with Harp and [Drew] Storen and myself, but the guys that were a little bit after us in the rounds, I think they’ve really maximized that. Especially with the trades, too. Getting Gio [Gonzalez] over here, put us pretty much into contention I thought from a pitching standpoint as soon as we got him. Because having Jordan [Zimmermann] there at the time, too, as long as we were able to go out and do our thing, I thought that set us up pretty well.”

Acquiring Werth to get on base and act as a clubhouse sensei marked another step. Gracing the then-31-year-old Werth with a seven-year, $127 million contract in 2011 to do so baffled and irritated many. He was leaving Philadelphia, which had won the division four consecutive times, for this unestablished team in the nation’s capital. General manager Mike Rizzo described the move at the time as “Phase two” of the Nationals’ construction, which meant moving from rebuilding the scouting team and prospect depth to pursuing wins. New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson rolled his eyes at the deal.

“That’s a long time and a lot of money,” Alderson said at the time. “I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington.”

Monday, Werth’s comments during warmups caused Harper to roar with laughter. Earlier in the day, they sat together in the back corner of the clubhouse talking quietly; Werth succeeding in his effort to look unkempt and walking around in a gray T-shirt that said, “Clear eyes, full beard, can’t lose.” Harper shirtless with his jet-streamed hair and his bat, which betrayed him last season after setting records the one before, bouncing between his legs.

Werth is at the end of his mammoth contract and his departure will be the first step out of the Nationals’ second phase under Rizzo. He is 37 years old, still a starter in left field and aware this could be the best remaining shot he has to win a second World Series.

Harper knows it is the end for Werth, too, which means a crucial relationship for him is likely coming to a close around the same time his work in Washington may be. At spring training in 2016, Harper was asked about how the mood in the clubhouse was different with Dusty Baker as the new manager. He said he didn’t know what the feel would be until Werth arrived to set it.

The end of Werth’s contract could signify the close of his time in baseball. The conclusion of Washington’s control of Harper following the 2018 season will put the 2015 MVP into the open market, barring an unlikely extension between now and Harper’s first opportunity to shop around. Murphy, who finished as the MVP runner-up last season, also can become a free agent following the 2018 season. Change is afoot, which squeezes more into this season than just the recent regular-season success that is followed by first-round playoff failure.

The manager, too, is among those on a countdown. Baker, who will turn 68 during the season, is in the final season of his two-year contract despite the team winning 95 games and the National League East last season. He joked earlier in the spring that he’s too old to be a lame duck. However, folded in with Werth, and the possible departures of Harper and Murphy after 2018, Baker’s fate is another looming element for an organization that has been resurrected from also-ran to expectation-filled.

“I think we got the group of guys to win and that’s our biggest goal here,” Harper said. “You want to win every single day and not look ahead, not look behind and live in that moment, live in the day.”

The Florida portion of spring training ended Thursday. An exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox at Nationals Park on Friday and a final one at the Naval Academy in Annapolis on Saturday remain. Werth had already been sent back to Washington because Baker wanted to avoid an almost-three-hour bus trip across the state for the aging star. Zimmerman, Scherzer and Gonzalez were sent north prior to the game, too. The remaining Nationals, Harper and Murphy among them, walked off the JetBlue Park Field at 4:19 p.m.

Their plane ride home and closing window awaited.

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