Predicaments and controversies report to spring training

WASHINGTON — Even though it doesn’t signify the beginning of any actual baseball, MLB’s pitcher and catcher report date ushers in a sense of optimism for fans, of rebirth, of hope for warmer weather and the return of the boys of summer. It is the light at the end of winter’s tunnel, as sun-soaked photos start to pour in from Arizona and Florida and renew our passion for the national pastime.

But all that pomp and circumstance feels a bit, well, stale this year. And with everything that’s happened so far in Viera, the spring training home of the Nats, it’s hard to feel much hope.

That seems crazy, considering that there’s plenty of reason to hope for good things from this team without the crushing expectations it failed to live up to last year. Baseball Prospectus’ projections think the Nats are a playoff team. USA Today thinks they’ll win the NL East. With Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg atop the rotation and Bryce Harper anchoring the lineup, both outcomes seem eminently possible.

But that optimism has been sucked out of the air by the first few days of camp. Even the early images from Florida showed flat, overcast skies, as if an indicator of the mood.

First to arrive and speak in Viera was Jonathan Papelbon, the late-season acquisition who helped contribute to Washington’s 2015 implosion, then put a face on the collapse by choking the team’s best player on national television. After an offseason in which the team was unable to unload him, Papelbon reportedly had to be talked out of wearing a cut-off T-shirt reading “Obama Can’t Ban These Guns” to his apology news conference on Sunday, the news event that dominated the day.

On Monday, it was Ryan Zimmerman’s turn for a we’re-only-going-to-talk-about-this-off-the-field-distraction-once news conference, dedicated to denying any knowledge of or involvement in the performance enhancing drug allegations made in Al-Jazeera America’s documentary this offseason. While there does not appear to be any evidence against Zimmerman other than the since-retracted word of pharmacist Charlie Sly, Zimmerman is the longest-tenured and one of the most respected players in the organization, and even the mention of his name associated with such a scandal is disheartening.

Wednesday brought skipper Dusty Baker’s chance to sour the mood. Given the way Baker was hired and his tone-deaf statements in his first public appearance following his introduction, a reassuring performance in front of the media that will follow him through the nearly 200-game marathon of spring training and the regular season would have helped matters.

Instead, Baker twice referred to Harper — the best player on his team and the reigning unanimous National League MVP — as “Royce.” Sure, you can just chalk it up to a (pair of) slip(s) of the tongue. But for a 66-year-old manager steadfastly committed to his “old school” methods in the face of a changing game, it’s disconcerting that he called Harper the name of one of his former players.

The Orioles have had problems of their own across the state in Sarasota. After dropping the GDP of a small country to retain Chris Davis in a bidding war against themselves, Baltimore looked like they had waited out the market and gotten a couple late signings to help bolster their roster, in starter Yovani Gallardo and outfielder Dexter Fowler.

Then, suddenly, Gallardo found himself subjected to one of Baltimore’s notorious physicals, somehow tougher to pass than those of all other teams. His original deal was revised down to two years and $22 million. But at least it appears he will end up in an Orioles uniform.

The Fowler deal was assumed to be completed literally until the moment Fowler walked onto the field Thursday morning not in Sarasota but in Mesa, Arizona, hugging his once and future Chicago Cub teammates. He turned down his reported 3-year, $33 million deal in Baltimore in exchange for a single-year pact, with a mutual option for a second year, for less money to stay in Chicago.

It turns out that Fowler wanted an opt-out after one year, something the Orioles were not willing to offer. Sound familiar?

The Nationals pursued Yoenis Cespedes, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist this offseason, seeing all three sign with other clubs despite competitive offers from Washington, a team seemingly poised to win now. Both Cespedes and Heyward reportedly took contracts with less guaranteed money than the Nats offered in exchange for the flexibility of opting out, a new wrinkle to the free-agent market to which neither organization adapted in time.

Instead, both teams failed to offer opt-outs to their biggest free-agent targets, so those targets opted out of the mid-Atlantic entirely.

Instead of Heyward, the Nationals traded Drew Storen for Ben Revere, a light-hitting center fielder coming off a career year, to play center field. As it was reported Thursday, they never bothered to tell the man long thought to be the center fielder of the future, Michael Taylor. Taylor found out about the deal days later, while taking batting practice with a friend.

It’s not that such news on its own would mean much. It’s that every day seems to bring more of it.

But if all the news seems to be gloomy in Viera and Sarasota, the guy who seems to be having the most fun in Florida is Yoenis Cespedes, who drove a different car to camp every day this week until he ran out of vehicles. That’s only more salt in the wound for Nats fans, who watched the Mets outfielder who led New York’s late-season charge past them for the division title (and wouldn’t take their money this winter) hold court just down the coast.

One thing can make all of the bad memories, the failure to sign free agents, and the day-to-day distractions go away — winning. But you can’t win anything meaningful until the regular season actually starts in 38 days.

Wake me up when spring training ends.

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