WASHINGTON (AP) After producing the NL's best record two of the past three years but failing to win a playoff series, Ryan Zimmerman and the Washington Nationals must wonder whether 2015 is the current core's last chance to succeed in the postseason.
''We're coming to a crossroads, I think,'' Zimmerman said.
That, perhaps, is why owner Ted Lerner promised to pay Max Scherzer $210 million, adding the 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner to a starting rotation that led the majors with a 3.03 ERA. It might be why general manager Mike Rizzo traded for a middle infielder, Yunel Escobar, who can fill in at second base for now and slide over to shortstop, if need be.
Probably not a coincidence that those two additions play the same positions as a pair of cornerstone, homegrown guys - right-hander Jordan Zimmermann and shortstop Ian Desmond - who can become free agents after this season.
''We understand where we're at as an organization. We've got a lot of good players and ... we're running out of time,'' Desmond said. ''We've kind of all accepted it, I think, and we'll see what happens moving forward.''
As for looking back at the NL East champions' four-game loss in a division series to the eventual World Series-winning San Francisco Giants, Manager of the Year Matt Williams chose to see the potential bright side.
''It was a good learning experience for our guys ... and, hopefully, we get a chance to get back and take the next step and hopefully (go) beyond that,'' Williams said. ''For 29 teams, it all ends way too fast. We want to be the last ones standing at some point.''
As the Nationals head to Viera, Florida, this week for spring training and hold their first official workout for pitchers and catchers on Saturday, here are some key questions facing the team:
DO DESMOND AND ZIMMERMANN GET DEALT OR GET DEALS? Desmond, the heart of the lineup and heart-and-soul of the clubhouse, had 24 homers and 91 RBIs last season. Zimmermann is a two-time All-Star who won 33 games over the past two years and threw a no-hitter in the 2014 regular-season finale, then came within one out of a shutout against the Giants. One or both could get traded. One or both could wind up with a new Nationals contract. ''I don't like (negotiating) during the season,'' Zimmermann said. ''We made that clear last year - and the year before that.''
WILL HARPER STAY HEALTHY? Bryce Harper shifts from left field to right, swapping with Jayson Werth, and should move up from sixth in the lineup. If he can stay healthy - he played 100 games in 2014, 118 in 2013 - Harper is as fearsome a hitter as there is. In the NLDS, he hit .368 with three homers. Werth, meanwhile, could miss the start of the regular season after shoulder surgery.
BEST ROTATION? Add Scherzer to Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez, and just how good can the group be? Consider this: 15-game winner Tanner Roark appears headed to the bullpen.
ZIMMERMAN AT FIRST? This has been the plan for a while, yet it still might be odd for Nationals fans to see face-of-the-franchise Zimmerman make the full-time move from third base to first, replacing Adam LaRoche.
WHAT ABOUT THE BULLPEN? The price to acquire Escobar was Tyler Clippard, a two-time All-Star Rizzo calls ''maybe the best eighth-inning guy in the history of the game.'' Washington also traded Ross Detwiler and let Rafael Soriano leave. Drew Storen, who blew saves in the 2012 and 2014 playoffs, seems to be back as the closer, while former Toronto closer Casey Janssen arrives as a possible replacement for Clippard.
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