Club has plenty of talent in all phases of the game, but rotation in a category by itself
By Mike Bauman
VIERA, Fla. -- The key word here is "excited" or "exciting" or "excitement."
But this is not child-at-Christmas-jumping-for-joy-right-now excitement. This is more like the healthy anticipation of down-the-road achievement, on the part of highly competitive adults.
The prospects of the Washington Nationals are exciting, even for neutral observers of the game. They had, by the numbers, the best pitching staff in baseball last year. They also had the best record in the National League. Then they added the leading free-agent pitcher, Max Scherzer.
The appropriate response was probably "Wow!"
"I was excited," said Jordan Zimmermann, who has been the most effective starting pitcher for the Nationals over the past two seasons.
Zimmermann said he was excited by the prospect of seeing Scherzer pitching for his club and then seeing, in turn, how the rest of the rotation performed. The downside, Zimmermann said, was that one of the starters would lose his spot in the rotation.
There was considerable speculation that with the addition of Scherzer, the Nats would trade a starter. Much of that speculation centered around Zimmermann, but ownership did not make rotation cutbacks after making the major addition. That decision, Zimmermann said, was appreciated throughout the club.
For the future beyond 2015, it would be extremely helpful for the Nationals to retain Zimmermann. He is a tough competitor. Zimmermann is from central Wisconsin and still spends his winters there. That is not the easiest way to spend a winter.
"I like Wisconsin in the winter," Zimmermann said. "I can't go ice fishing here [in Florida]."
Good point. But how did the prospect of playing for this team appear to a new guy? In this case, Casey Janssen, a successful closer with the Blue Jays, is a free-agent addition to the Washington bullpen, where he will work in the late innings.
How did Janssen feel when he walked into the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium?
"It's exciting," Janssen said Tuesday. "It's exciting to have an expectation that's worthy of World Series contender. I think everyone in the room is excited for the challenge.
"It was a great selling point for me, being a free agent, knowing that the foundation was in place. It seemed like a fit. For me, it was a no-brainer to go to the team that had the best record, has the starting pitchers they have, the position players they have; all the pieces are there to make a nice run. Now it's just a matter of doing it."
And that's the theme that is more basic to this camp than even the excitement. As Zimmermann said, there is no reason for the Nats to change anything in their fundamental game-to-game approach. So the mood you get here is naturally upbeat, but it is also professional.
"It starts with [manager] Matt [Williams]. He expects you to work hard and be professional," Janssen said. "It's a really crisp, professional camp. We're going to go do our work. We know we have the talent to do big things in the game, but we've got to remember to do the little things, and that's the phase we're in right now."
You look at this club and there is a certain can't-miss quality to the roster. First baseman Adam LaRoche departed in free agency, but the Nationals moved Ryan Zimmerman in there. How much better will the Nats be with a healthy Zimmerman regularly in the lineup? Third baseman Anthony Rendon has already made an impact, and he's only 24.
There is only one troubling aspect here, and that's in the category of recent playoff history. The Nationals have had the best record in the NL in two of the past three seasons, but they have yet to win a postseason series.
"We have the pitching," Zimmermann said, "and our lineup must be one of the best in baseball. Last year [in the postseason], the pitching was fine, but the hitting was off. The time before that [in 2012], the hitting was good, but the pitching wasn't there. It may be just a matter of putting things together."
That may be all it takes, but in the meantime, there is Spring Training and then there are 162 regular-season games. The Nationals have already proven themselves extremely capable of mastering the marathon season. October will just have to wait. The Nats will get there, one game at a time.
There is plenty of talent on hand in all phases of the game, but that rotation is in a category by itself.
"All of our guys have the ability to go out there and compete and win a game on any given day -- and that's what we feel good about," said Williams.
It is possible that the manager, while being completely correct, was also mastering the understatement there. Deep down, he was probably excited, too.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.