VIERA, Fla.— Spring Training No. 9 for the Washington Nationals has less than two weeks left here on the outskirts of Melbourne, Fla., but make no mistake about it, it's a decidedly different environment in and around Space Coast Stadium.
In years past, the chatter in the stands revolved far more around the possibility that that season's roster could potentially reach .500. Some fans I eavesdropped on were waxing nostalgic on some famous -- or less so -- roster moves of the recent past.
"Remember when we thought Lastings Milledge would be the long-term answer in center field?"
"I was amazed when they didn't re-sign Tim Redding after he won 10 games the previous year."
"Hey, whatever happened to Odalis Perez?"
These days there's far more attention given to what could be the most complete roster in baseball. Things like that happen when you're coming off a 98-win season, and having attended every Nats spring training since 2005 -- usually for a week in mid-March -- I'm finding the stress level, both in the stands and the clubhouse, is fairly low.
No left-handed short man in the bullpen? No problem. "That whole splits thing is somewhat overrated," according to reliever Tyler Clippard, whose name is invariably a big part of those discussions. "If you're hitting the spots you need to hit, it shouldn't matter that much," said the right-hander, against whom lefty swingers hit .170 in 2012 and .186 for his career.
Jordan Zimmermann's 7.90 spring training ERA? "Nobody tinkers with his stuff down here more than Jordan," said skipper Davey Johnson. "I don't worry about him down here. He's working on his change, and he'll be ready."
It's impossible for Bryce Harper to keep a low profile down here, inasmuch as it seems like at least half the fans at any Nats home game this month have "HARPER" on the backs of their shirts. His swing seems to be in mid-season form, and he's made some amazing throws from left field to the plate. "I've told him it's okay to the cut-off man now and then," said his manager.
There's not much mystery around here. It's possible we'll see some realignment of the bench if the Nats decide they want Tyler Moore to get 500 plate appearances in Syracuse, but that's a decision for the brain trust. There is some concern about Ryan Zimmerman's timetable for playing third base for 9 innings. Thus far he's been playing DH, including in some games where the opposing pitcher is hitting, and it's plain his bat skills are ready to go. Entering the weekend he was hitting .500 down here with an OPS of 1.273, but everyone's waiting to see him throw the ball overhand to first base. Nats brass doesn't seem concerned about it, but the fans want to see for themselves.
Confidence is high. It's been high before some previous years, but there's something more tangible at work in 2013. With 2 weeks to go before opening day, the Nationals -- and fans -- are ready to start the countdown.
Examiner columnist Phil Wood co-hosts the "Mid-Atlantic Sports Report" and is a regular contributor to "Nats Xtra" on MASN. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.