Mike Rizzo’s neon-green shoes could be seen by planes flying over Space Coast Stadium. Martians probably discussed them. His hideously splendid lime-yellow, almost iridescent sneakers could be placed on police cars in a high-speed chase.

“They don’t want me to sneak up on them,” said Rizzo, explaining his luminous look Saturday, the Washington Nationals’ first day of spring training.

The Nationals aren’t going to sneak up on anybody, that’s for sure. They might as well all wear shoes that glow in the dark. They’re Team Expectation.

At the beginning of spring training, every team is supposed to think it can win the World Series. But only one team is the the “preseason” favorite. It’s an imaginary, arbitrary distinction that carries burdens but not a single advantage. It means, if you’re the Nats, that Las Vegas thinks you have an 83 percent chance of failing to win the world title — the least-bad odds, at 6-1. Wow, some honor. The Nats would give it away for day-old pizza if anybody would take it.

Being anointed preseason favorite is like being the least-doomed shipwreck survivor: Don’t worry, there’s one chance in six that a ship will show up.

Post Sports Live debates which NL teams are the Nationals' biggest threats heading into spring training. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“I already hear people talking about us saying, ‘They should . . . they should . . . it’ll be a disappointing season if they don’t do this or that.’ It makes me crazy,” said Bob Boone, a Nationals vice president who in his playing career caught the third-most games in MLB history. “Do people actually live their lives like that — setting the highest possible expectation so they give themselves the best chance to feel miserable?”

But even when you’re a 50-year baseball man like Boone, you can’t deny the pain you feel when you know you’re one of the best teams — but not the best.

“Last October, I was advance-scouting the Royals when we lost to the Giants,” said Boone. “I couldn’t believe it. ‘This can’t be right. I’ve got plane flights and hotels reserved to three different cities. You mean, it’s over?’ ”

The distance between the perspectives of ballplayers and ardent fans and the merely casual fans is enormous, perhaps greater than in any sport. And one huge difference is in their perspectives on expectations.

The Nationals themselves, and a few hundred fans who showed up to watch drills, think in terms of multi-year process and slow progress in mastering a hard craft. Results follow. How much better will Bryce Harper be? Strength coach John Philbin grabs Anthony Rendon by the shoulders, pretending to smack him around but actually doing his own muscle test. “You been workin’ out or just got on a bigger shirt?” he jokes.

The general sports world is more likely to want hot takes and sweeping conclusions — even if those proclamations flip several times within a year.

“Our ‘expectation’ is that we’ve built a team with a chance to win in every game it plays. What about this — we ‘expect’ to play really good, exciting baseball all season,” says Rizzo, as he watches pitchers line up in front of him, all throwing off mounds perhaps 10 feet apart. The first group is Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Thornton, Tanner Roark and Drew Storen. On Sunday, the first group will be Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Craig Stammen and Jerry Blevins.

Rizzo remembers his first spring as GM in 2009, when he didn’t have five pitchers worth watching. Now, they come in waves.

Here comes A.J. Cole. “Plus-plus fastball with command. Plus-plus change-up. Poise. Pounds the strike zone. Ultra competitor,” said Rizzo. “Still working to improve his slider and curveball.”

In 2009, he might have been the ace. Now, he’s Class AAA.

The dichotomy of Nats camp is captured in the gap between what Rizzo watches in detail every day — the progress of a whole system of players — and the longer-term need to fulfill those big expectations eventually. Sooner’s better.

“You build the best team you can for this season. And you build for future good teams at the same time,” said Rizzo. “But in the playoffs, you never know. You can meet a hot team at the wrong time. The best pitcher doesn’t always win one particular playoff game. Take Clayton Kershaw [who lost twice to the Cardinals in the Division Series]. Explain that to me. I don’t think he choked.”

Underneath standard February boilerplate, what does the Nats’ brain trust really think of what it’s holding — besides its potentially historic pitching rotation?

“We need to work on our defense. Especially early in the year. We got off to a bad start last season,” said Rizzo. “We have some ideas, some drills to work on that.”

“Our offensive execution can improve,” said Manager Matt Williams, who probably meant “had darn well better improve” after poor situational hitting and high strikeout counts against the Giants.

Expectation may be baseball’s poison fruit. The more often those expectations are thwarted, the more they can snowball. Since 2000, the Braves have been to the playoffs nine times and been knocked out by their first foe eight times. The A’s have been to the postseason eight times and gotten knocked out by their first opponent seven times.

So, by comparison, the Nats’ 0-for-2 in October is still small-scale suffering. But it’s a trend they want to snuff. That’s their predicament, and their huge promise. Even in February, October dreams and fears creep into your mind.

Like Rizzo’s blazing shoes, you can’t miss ’em.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.