VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals came into spring training with all but one or two spots on their 25-man roster already set. They’re also one of the preseason favorites to reach the World Series.
Pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper are two of the brightest young stars in the game, and veteran players like pitcher Dan Haren have said they signed with Washington inlarge part for the chance to win a championship.
For players like third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and relief pitcher Tyler Clippard, the recent success of the defending National League East champions is appreciated much more because they were in Nationals when the picture wasn’t so rosy.
“People always ask how bad it was,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t like to use the word ‘bad’ because we’re in the big leagues, playing baseball, so it’s really not that bad. Losing stinks, obviously, especially people who compete for their job.
“It was difficult, or frustrating. I guess those are two better words than bad.”
The year was 2009. The Nationals had just come off a season in which they had lost 102 games. The opening day lineup included Lastings Milledge in center field, Christian Guzman at short and Ronnie Belliard at second. John Lannan was the starting pitcher.
There were more than 80 players in camp that year, so many the team had to put temporary lockers through the middle of the clubhouse.
For Clippard, who had come over from the Yankees organization a year earlier, it was like a whole new world.
“When you have a situation like that, where there’s really no identity and they’re just searching for players to come out of the woodwork (because) there’s nobody established, you don’t really feel a sense of camaraderie,” Clippard said. “You really don’t have a team. It’s just a bunch of guys.
“We were just out there. We couldn’t get our work in as good as if there were less people there. And it’s no blame on anybody. It was just the nature of the kind of team we were.”
The Nationals would lose 103 games in 2009. General manager Jim Bowden had surprisingly resigned in March, replaced by Mike Rizzo (who would lose the ‘interim GM” label in August) . Manager Manny Acta was fired in July and replaced by Jim Riggleman.
It “was something that wasn’t fun for anybody,” Clippard said.
Players knew things would turn around eventually. The only question was when.
The progress was gradual. The Nationals won 69 games in 2010, 80 games in 2011 and then had last year’s breakthrough with a 98-64 record culminating with their first playoff appearance in Washington D.C. since 1933.
Top draft picks Strasburg and Harper have arrived, while others like Jordan Zimmermann — the fifth starter on that 2009 team — have developed.
Rizzo has made some big moves, including trading for pitcher Gio Gonzalez last season, and bringing in center fielder Denard Span, pitcher Dan Haren and closer Rafael Soriano to compliment this year’s club.
Washington’s payroll will top $100 million for the first time this season, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee a winner, but shows how far the team has come in the past few years.
“It’s a process,” Clippard said. “You could slowly start to see it get better. It’s been fun to be a part of that.”
For Zimmerman, who has been the face of the organization since he became the first pick of the franchise in 2005, the early struggles make times like this that much better.
“I know it makes me appreciate it more, being able to look around now and have maybe one or two jobs that are being competed for, compared to 18 or 19,” he said.
“It’s a more relaxed camp. It’s easier to get your stuff done and focus on doing what you need to do to help this team win, and that’s the ultimate goal.”
The change in atmosphere wasn’t lost on Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner, who said he was excited to get to camp on Thursday.
“You used to come over here, watch these (workouts) and there would be about six people watching,” Lerner said. “Now, it’s packed every day. It may be the most exciting team in baseball. We’ve come a long way in four years.”
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