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Nationals must straddle the line between winning now and building for later

Paul Lessard, director of athletic training, left, coverses with GM Mike Rizzo, center, and manager Dusty Baker at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

— From the moment Bryce Harper settled in for a live batting-practice session against massive young Lucas Giolito on Saturday afternoon, the Nationals' confluence of prodigious present and fascinating future came into sharp focus. It was an undeniable indicator that, for all the franchise did to ruin a championship opportunity last season, this remains one of baseball's most stable long-term situations.

The Nationals aren’t the preordained World Series favorite anymore. But the organization is layered with talent — from established to on the verge to precocious, and everything in between — that provides hope for a quick recovery and an expectation that the Nationals might soon be as well-stocked as they were in 2015. All they have to do is the extremely tricky part: Nurture and maximize it with impeccable timing.

In traditional sports jargon, 2016 would be considered a bridge year, a season to transition from all-in 2015 to whatever crazy things you dream of when imagining Giolito, Tanner Roark, Joe Ross, shortstop Trea Turner, outfielder Michael A. Taylor and possibly others being entrenched core members of a team that would still feature Harper, Anthony Rendon, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg if he signs a long-term deal after this season.

Nationals veterans get a good look at Lucas Giolito

This season, the Nationals’ past and future are at an intersection with their present, and while that’s a good problem to have, it will also require deft judgment from the manager/general manager combo of Dusty Baker and Mike Rizzo to put together the right team for now and later. By hiring the 66-year-old Baker, who has a proven postseason track record, the Nationals have left no doubts about their hopes to contend immediately. But at the same time, they have some concerns about aging and injuries on the roster — Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, most prominently — and they have younger talent to compensate and change that dynamic if they choose.

New faces in familiar places

VIERA FL, FEBRUARY 21: Pitching coach Mike Maddux, left, and manager Dusty Baker watch pitchers work out during the Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers start of their second day of spring training at Space Coast Stadium in Viera FL , February 21, 2016. (John McDonnell / The Washington Post)

How much do they want to hold on to the past to have the ideal experience to win now? How much do they crave getting experience for young players to expedite the future?

At some point, this season will make them pick a side. The Nationals’ choice will define this year. They can open the bridge or keep it closed or provide passage on a limited basis. The health of veteran players may ultimately decide which direction they go. But it’s vital that the Nationals manage the complex situation well.

For now, they can enjoy a competitive spring training. Rizzo will tell you that he loves the competition and that the players will sort this out with their performance. Turner is competing with Danny Espinosa and Stephen Drew at shortstop. Taylor is competing with Ben Revere in center field. Roark wants to start again, and Ross wants to build upon his strong rookie season, but 39-year-old Bronson Arroyo, an old Baker favorite, is here to push them. Giolito, who is a hulking 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, is a long shot to make the opening day rotation, but he’s getting his first serious look.

Giolito, 21, wasn’t happy with his command Saturday, but his electric fastball and curveball got the attention of the veterans who faced him, including Clint Robinson, Zimmerman and Werth. And there was something about seeing Giolito pitch to Harper that made you delight in the possibilities.

“He could be his teammate for a long time,” Baker said.

After practice, there was plenty of Giolito buzz. One staffer asked Baker, “What did you think of the big guy?”

Baker grinned and replied, “Those big ol’ bright eyes!”

Spring training for the Nationals

VIERA, FL - FEBRUARY 29: Washington Nationals pitcher Blake Treinen (45) runs on the warning track after he pitched during a intrasquad scrimmage on February 29, 2016 in Viera, FL. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

The anticipation of what’s next drives sports. It carries over into team building and the fascination with college recruiting, pro drafts and player development. There’s nothing better than something new to obsess over.

But there’s also a delicate process in grooming these players properly, and few franchises have been better at it than the Nationals. When they draft or trade for elite young talent, a majority of those players turn into significant contributors. For the most part, the Nationals have emerged from bottom feeder to contender in the most natural and rewarding way.

A soft landing for Jordan Zimmermann in Detroit

The difference now? Well, the Nationals are good. What degree of good remains to be seen, but even if you’re pessimistic, it’s hard to envision the Nationals not winning 80-something games. They don’t have the 100-win ceiling that they used to have, but this is a competitive roster with more flexibility than it had a year ago. Young players need time to grow, and sometimes the wait is excruciating, or worse, fruitless. The stakes are greater if the Nationals turn to a few young players, and they don’t produce enough to help the team win.

When a bad team is building, it’s easier to turn to the next big thing and go through the growing pains. In 2010, when Ian Desmond beat out former all-star Cristian Guzman in spring training, it was a move that might’ve been too bold for some franchises. But the Nationals were coming off a 59-103 season and headed toward a 69-93 season. The expectations were low. What did they really have to lose by turning to a 24-year-old rookie?

You can stunt a player’s growth by rushing him to the big leagues or delaying his opportunity. Every team has difficult decisions to make, but the quality of the young players and the competitiveness of the current team make the Nationals’ conflict seem greater.

“I like the mixture of youth and veterans,” Baker said. “I have always because I’ve been in both shoes.”

It’s a good problem to have — unless you screw it up. Fortunately, Rizzo has helped the organization guide plenty of prospects to stardom. And as much as Baker is loyal to proven veterans, he’s not afraid to make a hard decision if a young player deserves the nod.

The Nationals are in transition, and their young talent is pushing. This offseason — saying goodbye to Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Denard Span and Doug Fister partly because the Nationals needed to create paths for their youth to make an impact in the big leagues — signaled the change. When that process is complete, the Nationals may have the jaw-dropping roster they had a year ago.

In the meantime, they’re somewhere between now and later, and it will take some shrewd, honest player evaluation to bridge that gap.

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