Viera, Fla. — Baseball is played best when the game is about “we.” But the sport also has a strong and necessary undercurrent of “me” that is essential for motivation over a grinding six-month season. A good club needs a blend of “we” and “me” to avoid complacency and to instill some day-after-day fear of failure.
The Washington Nationals have lived out this issue in recent years. We’re about to see what happens when a tight-knit talented team also has a huge number of players, perhaps 20 out of 25, who have potent individual motivations to either inspire or distract their play.
If you want a $50 million to $150 million free agent contract after 2015, then you better have a good season. Want to show that you’re a great player, as predicted, not just a good one, then it’s time to produce the numbers. Want to justify a new $210 million contract with a season to match it? Need to learn a new defensive position in mid-career or atone for blown playoff saves or even restore your image after spending embarrassing days in jail? The Nats have all that and more.
What a total contrast to the pallid motivational mixture that undermined the Nats just two years ago. That team trashed what might have been a superb season by playing slipshod baseball for 114 games. Too late, they woke up.
Patted on the head and ridden easy, they did something far worse than lose a division series against a good team. They squandered a season. Davey Johnson may still have nights when he wonders, “Where’d I leave my ol’ bullwhip?” Some Nats are still ashamed of 2013, while they’re merely frustrated by 2012 and 2014.
Here we are again. Once more, NL East champs. High win total. Set at almost every spot. Free agent additions to finish the picture. October-loss memories that could either lead to a next-season letdown or else put a spur under saddles.
Some think the Nats may, unconsciously, coast in a weak division that they won by 17 games last year. The Braves are rebuilding. “The Marlins scare the hell out of me,” Nats exec Bob Boone says. But few predict a tough division race.
There is, however, one huge difference between 2013 and 2015. The former team had few reasons for strong selfish individual motivation. They were young, comfy and secure: We’ll be together here for years; watch how much fun we have.
The 2015 Nats are the opposite. This clubhouse is full of men who, if they view their own career arcs accurately, should play like their pants are afire. Nats execs see this pattern, too, and assume the net impact will be positive, taking a sleepwalk year like 2013 out of play. But some players are derailed by “me” motives.
Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Doug Fister and Denard Span are all free agents after 2015. It’s gospel among general managers that players in their “walk year” are driven to fine years by dreams of millions. Some, of course, try too hard.
After signing Max Scherzer, it’s unlikely the Nats can extend the deals of more than one of those four — if that. So as a group, they know that $400 million in new contracts may be at stake. For instance, Span had offseason sports hernia surgery and can’t even run full speed yet. Span’s a specific goal setter. So what’s he aiming at? Something modulated by his injury recovery? “Make the all-star team [for the first time],” he said Sunday. That would be mighty profitable.
Zimmermann has described Scherzer’s contract size as “shocking” — not as criticism, just in candor. Now Zimmermann knows just how much he potentially is playing for. That remark gives Scherzer one more reminder of all the eyes that will be on him — just like every monster free agent in his first year. In 2011, Jayson Werth never got emotionally disentangled from the weight of his $126 million deal.
Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper have been first-rate players so far. But this is probably the year when we grasp their true ceiling. Greats identify themselves early. Nos. 37 and 34 are now in their sixth and fourth seasons, respectively. So far, the career that Strasburg resembles most closely statistically at the same age is Jim Bouton, best known for his book “Ball Four,” not his 20-win season. Harper’s closest clone at 22 is Justin Upton. It’s doubtful either Nat would be satisfied if those players continued to be their performance peers.
Great players, the kind who lead many Series teams, also show up in the Black Ink. The league leader in every category has his total listed — like Anthony Rendon’s 111 runs last year to lead the NL — in bold black type. A typical Hall of Fame pitcher has about 40 “black ink” numbers on his career page and a hitter has 27: dominance in his era. So far, Strasburg has five and Harper none.
The Nats’ lack of great players, Black Ink guys, may be a flaw. A team-wide absence of weaknesses isn’t usually enough.
Everywhere here you see players who have something to prove. Wilson Ramos worked all winter on agility drills to “soften muscles” in his hamstrings so they won’t pull so often. “I want to show I can play 120 games or more,” he says. Ryan Zimmerman, moving to first base at 30, wants to show he’s not injury-prone and that his big power numbers in 2009 and 2010 were not his high-water mark.
Drew Storen gets another chance to prove he’s a true closer; he also wants to supplant the images of Game 5 in 2012 and Game 2 last season with far better memories. Second baseman Yunel Escobar and reliever Casey Janssen, both new Nats, had off years in 2014 that could either be blips or career-slide tip-offs. They’re under scrutiny.
Add Werth, who wants to be remembered for his play, not his Porsche, and gifted young reliever Aaron Barrett, who wants to dispel images of his mound meltdown in Game 4 in San Francisco. Even NL manager of the year Matt Williams, already as jacked up as a human coffee urn, is obsessed with getting another shot at managing (better) in Month No. 10.
From now until opening day, you will hear conventional wisdom that the Nats’ worst problem this season will be finding a reason to play hard before October arrives. That’s probably backward. Something may drag this team down.
But it certainly shouldn’t be lack of motivation.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.