VIERA, Fla. — Disastrous on the field and disregarded off it, the Washington Nationals existed for most of their first seven years as an afterthought to the greater baseball universe. The Nationals twice lost more than 100 games, finished last five times and almost always spelled the name of their team correctly on their uniforms.
The Nationals arrived at spring training this year facing and carrying altered expectations. Analysts and experts anointed them a chic playoff choice. The players in their clubhouse openly predicted October baseball in the District. Television executives made plans to showcase them. And the most influential leader in the sport, the man who made vibrant baseball in the nation’s capital a priority, foresaw the dawning of a new era in Washington.
“What’s stood out to me this spring, more baseball people have said to me, ‘The Nationals are going to be good this year,’ ” Commissioner Bud Selig said in a phone interview. “They’re going to be really competitive. In terms of people talking about a club that is clearly coming on, it’s the Nationals.”
Without the benefit of a winning season, the Nationals have acquired the appearance of an emergent team, a franchise that finally has found its way eight years after relocating from Montreal. They have the star power of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, a talented young core, a rock-steady franchise player in Ryan Zimmerman and more gifted minor leaguers on the way.
Every spring, certain teams become the trendy choice. This spring, one of those teams is the Nationals.
“I know we’re that team,” outfielder Jayson Werth said. “What I don’t like is how we’re being perceived. I would rather come in under the radar. I’d rather be that unknown. So we’re getting a lot of exposure. I also feel like talk is cheap. I’d like to do a little surprise attack. I think we’re a little more known than we should be.”
Said Nationals reliever Brad Lidge, an 11-year veteran who signed this offseason: “We’re a trendy pick, or whatever the verbiage is, for a reason. It’s because we’re good. You’re looking at a team that I believe is going to make the playoffs.”
This winter, ESPN executives and broadcasters gathered in a conference room to determine the initial portion of their “Sunday Night Baseball” schedule, to choose the best matchups for the sport’s biggest regular season stage. They pored over metrics, compared research and argued like fans in a sports bar.
The Nationals had not appeared on the show since their first game of 2008, the night Nationals Park opened. This year, the Nationals will play on “Sunday Night Baseball” twice in the season’s first eight weeks, on May 6 against the Philadelphia Phillies and May 27 against the Atlanta Braves.
“You kind of say to yourself, all right, what will compel people to watch this game? What can you give people in a 10-second promo?” said Mike Ryan, ESPN’s vice president of programming. “That usually comes down to stars. The guys on the Nationals — Strasburg, Harper, the two Zimmerman[n]s — there’s no shortage of marketable players.”
“The Nationals are a team, they’ve been coming,” Ryan added. “They’ve now built a core, a nucleus of exciting young players. We see them on the cusp of being better known nationally and more competitive. We see them as an up-and-coming team in a division that’s kind of wide open.”
Since the Nationals moved to Washington, they have lagged behind every other franchise in a major East Coast city. But there are signs that is changing. The Nationals have sold more tickets to Nationals Park than in any season since it opened. Selig said he can envision the Nationals becoming a marquee franchise like the Phillies or Boston Red Sox.
“These things are always hard to predict,” Selig said. “They had to hire their own people, redo the farm system. It was an organization starting all over in a very, very tough division. I think people should be quite satisfied with this pace. You got to have patience. They had some stars on the rise. There is no doubt about it, they are now a very, very competitive baseball team.”
After the Miami Marlins and Nationals played for the final time this spring, Marlins Manager Ozzie Guillen approached General Manager Mike Rizzo and said, “You’re going to be hell to play.” Rizzo said opposing scouts, coaches and managers have offered similar sentiment all spring.
“I think you started to feel it last year,” said former Nationals team president Stan Kasten, now part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. “The fact that they have this solid, homegrown base makes everything doable. It frees you up to get those other pieces. You saw the excitement building over the course of the last year.”
The excitement revolves most around Strasburg and Harper, the Nationals’ reward for consecutively finishing with the worst record at the best time possible. Their competitive success will hinge on so much else — Harper may not debut until midseason or later — but they provide a symbol.
“The most important thing in running a franchise is hope and faith,” Selig said. “Harper and Strasburg have given Washington hope and faith.”
Harper and Strasburg have been at the fore of a wholly revamped minor league system, the key to the Nationals’ turnaround. Five years ago, the Nationals’ farm system ranked, according to Baseball America, 30th in the majors.
“There’s an explanation why we were 30th,” Kasten said. “The reason is, there were only 30 teams.”
This winter, Baseball America ranked the Nationals’ system No. 1 in the sport. Though the Nationals dropped to 12th after they traded four prospects to the Oakland Athletics for all-star left-hander Gio Gonzalez, the transformation had been complete.
The reshaping of the farm system “actually has happened a little quicker than I thought,” scouting director Kris Kline said. The Nationals transformed their farm system with a three-year plan, anticipating rule changes that will make it unlikely any team will be able to match their recent talent haul.
“It wasn’t on the fly,” Rizzo said. “It was mapped out.”
After Rizzo became the Nationals’ general manager in 2009, he and Roy Clark, the newly hired vice president of player personnel, made a pitch to ownership. Rizzo had watched bonuses for amateur players begin surpassing contracts given to some major league veterans, and “I thought that there was sentiment for change in the air in that area,” Rizzo said.
The collective bargaining agreement would expire in the winter after the 2011 season, and Rizzo and Clark believed baseball would use the new CBA to implement some form of a spending cap for the draft. If they spent big, they pleaded with the owners, the Nationals could collect an abundance of minor league talent that would be difficult for other teams to catch up to.
From 2009 to 2011, the Nationals spent more than $38 million on signing bonuses in the draft, including more than $15 million in 2011 alone — more than they had spent in 2009 and 2010, when they drafted Strasburg and Harper.
This winter, baseball’s new CBA established a restrictive tax for surpassing a draft spending cap and eliminated the ability to give major league contracts to amateur players. The Nationals selected Anthony Rendon, Brian Goodwin, Alex Meyer and Matt Purke in 2011, a collection of talent that, with the new draft rules, may not be equaled in the future.
“It would be impossible,” Kline said. “We discussed this three years ago. That was kind of the plan going in, not knowing what the guidelines would be, but knowing the rules would change.”
The Nationals’ work below the surface has finally started to show. Selig spent most of his spring in Arizona, and it amazed him how often someone asked him, “Have you seen Washington this spring?”
Right now, on the eve of opening day, only possibility exists. But there are hope and faith in Washington that the rest of baseball, in the years to come, may be seeing quite a bit of the Nationals.
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