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Back to normal? Washington Nationals head to Spring Training positioned to build beyond this season

A team built to win now will also be determining which of many paths it takes moving forward...

New York Yankees v Washington Nationals Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Here in the Washington area, Mother Nature is set to deliver a classic one-two punch of freezing temps and snow/sleet later this week. At that time, the FITTeam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches will seem a world away.

But in that world, while most of us are plowing through our winter routine, pitchers and catchers will officially report to Spring Training on Wednesday.

For Nationals fans everywhere, a long-awaited spring begins.

It’s going to be hard to hold back the emotions, watching the guys just playing catch in the Florida sunshine, hearing leather slap against leather for the first time in what seems like ages. Most baseball fans want something close to normal after a bizarre 2020 season that is lending some of its rules to 2021 but leaving much of the future of the team and the game to be decided.

There are 162 games on the schedule, and everyone’s playing home games in their own ballpark.

That much is “normal” about the 2021 season. The rest of it still needs to be played out.

Nationals fans are fortunate because 2021 is shaping up as a pivotal season. Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expires after the season, and general manager Mike Rizzo seems to have landed on a near-perfect spot in team construction at this point.

According to Cots Baseball Contracts, the only players the Nats have on payroll in 2022 and beyond are Stephen Strasburg, at $35 million per year until 2025, and Patrick Corbin, owed $82 million through 2024.

Aside from those two, the Nats are committed to paying reliever Will Harris $8 million in 2022 and outfielder Kyle Schwarber a deferred portion of the $10 million he’s earning in 2021. Everyone else on this year’s $182.5 million Opening Day payroll is either arbitration eligible or has a contract expiring after this season.

That means the team will be trying to win now, and the players will be striving for more say in their own futures.

What the Nationals look like in 2022 and beyond will depend a lot on which players have success in their “walk years.”

Rizzo has given manager Davey Martinez influence over roster construction, reuniting him with former Chicago Cubs’ outfielder Kyle Schwarber, starting pitcher Jon Lester. and one-time Cubs’ pitching coach Jim Hickey.

In the combination of Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin, and Lester, Rizzo has also built the most solid foursome of starters a Washington baseball fan can remember. The bullpen the Nats are starting the season with has a championship pedigree.

The Nats also have two of the most exciting young stars in the game today in Juan Soto and Trea Turner, and a couple younger potential sluggers in Josh Bell and Luis Garcia.

However, this team could also be defensively challenged, slow and just plain old. Given a 162-game season playing out on the heels of a 60-game set, we could see success and failure in all of the above at different times.

The Nats are fortunate to be in the most active division in baseball this off season. Their top divisional rivals, Atlanta and the New York Mets, spent money to make major improvements over the offseason.

The Nationals have kept pace, giving their fans realistic hope that the team will contend for the postseason.

The good news is, if the Nats do have another magical season and win a pennant or World Series with this team, Rizzo can focus on bringing back the players he wants. The better news is, that if they don’t have that magical season and under-perform, Rizzo can tear it all apart and start from scratch.

By that time, there will either be a new collective bargaining agreement. No matter which side gains more leverage, there will be a new financial landscape for owners after what looks to be a difficult negotiation. Rizzo has positioned the Nats almost perfectly to build moving forward. The new CBA will help him structure long-term contracts for Soto, Turner and anyone else the Nats would like to sign. If the pay scale changes either way, the Nats will be in perfect position to react and sign players who can help them win in 2022 and beyond.

The 2021 season will help the Nationals determine which of many directions the team will take building into the future. Will they be a veteran ballclub that knows when to switch gears in a tight division race? Or will they be a step too slow and a dropped ball away from the postseason? Will Soto and Turner put up such dazzling seasons that signing them long- term would be a no-brainier? Or will injuries and the grind of a full season lead the team to decide on a different direction?

Spring Training is the perfect time to chew it all over.