Nats believe they're ready to contend

Perennial also-ran could finally have the pieces in place to make a run at playoffs

Originally Published: March 30, 2012
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

VIERA, Fla. -- After going 80-81 last year and making several impact moves in the offseason, the Washington Nationals have crossed the line from intriguing to "fashionable.'' The players caught a glimpse of the new world order when baseball writers parading through camp this spring spent more time focusing on roster upgrades and less time commiserating about the lack of nightlife and preponderance of cows in Viera.

"They're walking around asking questions instead of just doing it as a favor,'' says closer Drew Storen. "We're the trendy pick for a lot of people.''

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Toni L. Sandys/Getty ImagesFlamethrower Stephen Strasburg will make the Opening Day start for the Nationals.

That sense of anticipation is shared by the Washington players, who are seeing the fruits of the franchise's commitment to winning. Stephen Strasburg is now 20 months removed from Tommy John surgery and set to face the Chicago Cubs on Opening Day. Bryce Harper is only a phone call away with Triple-A Syracuse. Ryan Zimmerman just signed a $100 million contract extension that could keep him with the team through 2020, and the addition of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson makes for a deeper and more dynamic pitching staff.

The Nationals love their mix of experience and youth. Mark DeRosa is in camp to provide guidance for the double-play combination of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, and Brad Lidge is on board to help Storen and Tyler Clippard, both young relievers. Davey Johnson, still spry at 69, exudes patience and perspective as manager. The veterans like his style, and Johnson seems invigorated by the idea of working with so many young players.

There were some hiccups this spring. Storen is headed for the disabled list with elbow soreness, so Lidge and Henry Rodriguez will share the closer's role to begin the season. Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche, the team's projected left field-first base tandem, have a combined 15 Grapefruit League at-bats because of nagging injuries. The Nationals lack a proven center fielder, and they need more production from a lineup that ranked 12th in the league in runs (624) and OPS (.691).

But the optimism in camp is legitimate, as evidenced by sample enthusiastic quote No. 1:

"I'd be very surprised if we're not well above .500 at the end of the season,'' Lidge says. "And I believe we should be able to get one of those wild-card spots. I believe we should be a playoff team this year.''

Or sample enthusiastic quote No. 2:

"Talk is cheap,'' says outfielder Jayson Werth. "It does absolutely nothing for you in March to sit around and hear people say how good you are and how good you're going to be. We're young and inexperienced, and as a club we've got a lot to learn and a lot of games to play. But we have the right manager and the right mix of guys, and we're talented and hungry enough to surprise a lot of people this year.''

"A different vibe"

The upbeat mood is fueled by changes in the National League East landscape as well as upgrades in Washington. The Phillies are another year older and will begin the season without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. The Braves had a rough spring off their 9-18 September collapse. Miami is talented, but potentially combustible. And the Mets have to make major strides just to factor into the conversation.

Things are looking up in Washington under the direction of Mike Rizzo, who arrived from Arizona in 2006 and took over for Jim Bowden as general manager three years ago with a pledge to build through scouting and player development. Since then, the Nationals have taken advantage of some high first-round picks and spent lots of money to deepen the pipeline. ESPN's Keith Law said the Nationals had a "top 10'' farm system before they traded prospects A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock, Derek Norris and Tom Milone to Oakland for Gonzalez in December. Baseball America ranked the Washington system as No. 1 before the trade.

"There's a different vibe in the clubhouse,'' Rizzo says, "because there's a different caliber of players in the clubhouse.''

Rizzo's rules to live by: Stockpile power hitters at the corners and athletes up the middle, and place an emphasis on power pitching. Velocity isn't everything, but the Nationals have a collection of starters now who can bring it with the best of them.

Jayson Werth We're young and inexperienced, and as a club we've got a lot to learn and a lot of games to play. But we have the right manager and the right mix of guys, and we're talented and hungry enough to surprise a lot of people this year.

-- Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth

Jackson ranked fifth among MLB starters in fastball velocity at 94.5 mph last season, according to FanGraphs.com. Jordan Zimmermann was tied with Clayton Kershaw for 11th at 93.4, and Gonzalez's velocity (92.5) was a tick higher than Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. That brings us to Strasburg, who averaged 96.0 in five starts after returning from Tommy John surgery in September.

The Nationals ranked 26th in the majors in strikeouts last year, but it helped that they were 12th in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency rankings. They're going to generate a lot more swings and misses with this group -- even if Gonzalez and Jackson can be exasperating at times when their control wanders.

No one on the roster appreciates the new look more than Zimmerman, the face of the franchise since the Nationals picked him fourth overall in the 2005 draft. In Zimmerman's rookie year of 2006, the Washington rotation consisted of Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr., Livan Hernandez, Mike O'Connor and Pedro Astacio. Since then, the Nationals have won 71, 73, 59, 59, 69 and 80 games. Zimmerman hasn't played for a .500 team since the 2005 Virginia Cavaliers went 41-20 and made the NCAA tournament.

"You're so excited to be in the big leagues the first couple of years, you concentrate on establishing yourself and doing anything it takes to help your team win,'' Zimmerman says. "I was just lucky and happy to be here. But it's tough to come to the field sometimes when games in June are already meaningless. It wore on me a little bit.''

Zimmerman's tunnel vision and professional approach have won him admirers throughout the Washington clubhouse. Since his first full season, he ranks sixth among third basemen with an .831 OPS and is third in hits behind David Wright and Adrian Beltre. Werth, a self-described "sore loser,'' is amazed at how Zimmerman's demeanor never changes through good times and bad.

"It would have driven me crazy,'' Werth says. "He's a better man than me.''

Can Teddy win, too?

The scout in Rizzo tells him that high-character veterans can have a major influence on young players still learning their way. DeRosa, 37, is a prime example. So is Lidge, who has seen his fair share of exhilaration and despair as a big league closer. Fresh off a three-year, $37.5 million contract with the Phillies, Lidge signed for $1 million in January to be a setup man and mentor to Storen in Washington.

"He's got a great head on his shoulders,'' Lidge says. "It's easy for me to teach him everything I know, like Billy Wagner and Trevor Hoffman taught me, because he's respectful and he wants to get better.''

Lidge is more the nurturing type than his former Phillies teammate, Werth. After signing a seven-year, $126 million deal with Washington in December 2010, Werth saw too many young players who had been raised in a climate of losing and seemed a little too accepting of it. Werth played alongside Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard for several years in Philadelphia and knew the right way to go about things. And this wasn't it.

So Werth spoke his mind. He got into a spring training altercation with Nyjer Morgan, who was subsequently traded to Milwaukee, and didn't appear to be a fan of former manager Jim Riggleman, who resigned last June and was replaced by Johnson. Werth's .232 batting average and .719 OPS weren't quite what the Nationals had in mind in exchange for their nine-figure investment. But he did hit 22 homers and steal 19 bases, and his influence on the team's competitive psyche was undeniable.

"He changed the culture in here and made guys accountable on and off the field,'' Storen says. "Maybe his stats weren't that great. But I can think of three games off the top of my head where he stole bases and helped us win a game. He did some of the little things that your normal 'star' player probably wouldn't do.''

[+] EnlargeJayson Werth
Brad Barr/US PresswireJayson Werth is entering the second season of a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nats.

Werth's to-do list for this season transcends making the playoffs and extends all the way to in-game entertainment. Since 2006, the Nationals have held a fourth-inning Presidents Race during home games, and the Teddy Roosevelt character is winless in 441 attempts. For some reason Teddy's futility streak hit a nerve with Werth, who jokes, "I may be the last member of the Rough Riders.''

Werth led a plot to interfere with the race in September -- personally taking out Thomas Jefferson and recruiting several teammates to assist him -- but the coup failed. The Washington front office was not pleased by Werth's decision to go rogue, but the "Let Teddy Win!'' movement has gained an inexorable momentum. It's manifested in a website, T-shirts and a Teddy Roosevelt Presidents Race Twitter account.

On a sunny day in Viera, Werth strokes his beard, assumes a wistful look and envisions a potential watershed moment in franchise history. He is not thinking ahead to Bryce Harper's first major league at-bat.

"Teddy's gonna have to win a race,'' Werth says. "It's bigger than me.''

Come again?

"It just goes along with the whole expectancy of losing that was here when I got here,'' Werth says. "'The Nationals lost again?' OK. 'Teddy lost again?' No big deal. It's a parallel. People can laugh and say I'm out of my mind or whatever. Maybe I am. Who knows? But we've really turned the corner and we're headed in the right direction and we are close. We're really close.

"To me, the Presidents Race and Teddy Roosevelt are very symbolic of where this organization goes. It needs to be addressed. It needs to be answered.''

In a city known for so many hollow promises, postseason dreams for the Nationals seem about as realistic as, say, harmony in Congress or an effective deficit reduction plan. But if a big-headed Teddy Roosevelt impersonator can go the distance and not fall on his face, who says it can't happen?

The rest of the baseball world still needs some convincing. In the Washington clubhouse, they believe.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer