“I feel like the window is opening,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “And it’s going to be open for a while.”
Before last year, the Nationals had not finished with a winning record in any season since baseball returned to Washington in 2005. After years of ineptitude and careful planning, the franchise’s vision exploded a year ahead of schedule, with a 98-win season and a National League East title.
“They’re clearly the team to beat in the National League,” New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said. “They were the team to beat going into the playoffs last year. The best teams don’t always win. But on paper, I would say they’re the odds-on favorite in the National League.”
Under General Manager Mike Rizzo, the Nationals have designed a roster built for sustained success. The Nationals have 20 of the 25 players on their opening day roster under contractual control for at least the next three seasons, including four members of their starting rotation and seven of their eight everyday position players. The four Nationals selected to last year’s All-Star Game are aged 20, 24, 27 and 27. No one on their opening day roster is older than 33, and 19 are 29 or younger — either in or approaching their prime seasons.
“We’re going to be good for a long time,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “A lot of the guys that are here now are here for multiple years, under team control for a while. That’s what makes this team special.”
Window of opportunity
In professional sports, as Washington fans have learned up close, even the most promising foundations can curdle. In 2008, the Capitals stunned the National Hockey League and surged into the playoffs. Homegrown superstars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin headed a limitless, youthful core. They stole the town’s attention and put the league on notice. They may have bowed out in the playoffs, but for two years they posted the best record in the sport and seemed to be a perennial favorite to collect a Stanley Cup.
Five seasons later, their window threatens to shutter, its potential unfulfilled. As his production has declined precipitously and inexplicably, Ovechkin’s 13-year contract no longer seems like the no-brainer of a deal it was when he signed. Green has spent much of the past three seasons injured. And Semin was allowed to leave as a free agent. Now, the Capitals are struggling to make the playoffs. They still have not reached the Eastern Conference finals, let alone won a championship.