VIERA, Fla. - Scenes from the first day of Nationals spring training at Space Coast Stadium, where pitchers and catchers reported:
Handshakes, hugs and introductions - a necessity considering the team’s offseason maneuvering. A clubhouse attendant sits at a table removing the elastic band at the bottom of pants legs with surgical precision, an accommodation for players who prefer a looser fit. One by one, pitchers don their dress white uniforms and head off to be filmed by the club’s production staff for vignettes that will appear on the Nationals Park scoreboard. Outfielder Jayson Werth is sporting a mountain man beard that makes it looks like he hasn’t shaved - even the eponymous and hirsute faux Twitter account that follows his whiskered exploits would be impressed at the length - and closer Drew Storen looks like he’s taken months off from cutting his hair, judging from the mop of flowing locks his cap can’t contain. Davey Johnson and his coaches sit around a conference room table, planning the workouts that will begin Tuesday. Early-reporting position players - and there are a mess of them - tote bats to get a head start on hitting.
Oh, and there’s a lot of optimism. General manage Mike Rizzo may have expected the Nationals to reach contention in 2013, but last season’s strong finish and the offseason’s acquisitions of pitchers Edwin Jackson via free agency and Gio Gonzalez via trade have accelerated the timetable.
“The guys that are here are energized and everyone’s hungry,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “There’s definitely a buzz that’s kind of around.”
Washington’s 80-81 finish in 2011 was a pleasant development. The Nationals weathered a midseason managerial resignation, the unavailability of pitching sensation Stephen Strasburg until September, an innings limit placed on starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann , long-term injuries to third baseman Ryan ZImmerman and first baseman Adam LaRoche, and a subpar year from Werth after signing a seven-year, $126 million deal that drew widespread criticism.
But Michael Morse broke out after a slow start, Wilson Ramos established himself as an everyday catcher, Zimmermann pitched well until he was shut down and Storen emerged as a dependable closer in a bullpen stacked with power arms.
“Everyone’s a lot more upbeat and excited,” Zimmermann said. “I think it’s time to turn the page and put a winning ballclub in D.C. We had some key additions this offseason and I’m pretty excited to get going.”
Pitchers and catchers will undergo physicals tomorrow and will work out for the first time Tuesday. But there have been notable position players who have reported early, and pitchers and hitters alike seem to be eager to hit the batting cage or practice mound to jump-start the process.
“The focus might come from knowing it needs to be there,” said outfielder Rick Ankiel. “The whole (National League) East got better so we know we’re going to beat up on each other and it’s going to be exciting in divisional play.”
But all the offseason moves - and while the starting rotation is certainly improved, general manager Mike Rizzo didn’t find the leadoff hitter to play center field he coveted - don’t mean anything at all until the Nationals start winning. All the confidence in the world can be undone with underachievement or a sputtering start.
“Going into spring, everybody thinks they’re capable of having great years. ... Now it’s time to put up or shut up, basically,” said Strasburg.