Note: USA TODAY Sports' Paul White, via car, causeway, plane and rail, will eventually reach every major league camp this spring. Follow his exploits on Twitter - @PBJWhite - as he makes his way through the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues before he imparts all you didn't know about every team right here.
Who they're watching
They're all watching first-time manager Matt Williams.
No other manager in the majors could be more pivotal in his team's fortunes this year than the ultra-organized, often-intense former third baseman.
It's a big flip-flop from the low-key Davey Johnson, who took most of the same players to the playoffs in 2012 and through a disappointing 2013 before he retired.
So, who are the real Nationals? The talent level on the roster indicates it should be the '12 version. Were they too complacent last year? Still reeling from their stunning Game 5 loss in the 2012 Division Series? Or just playing like a team with a lame-duck manager even though it was a guy they professed to respect?
Enter Williams and the unknown quantity of what he'll bring and how he'll bring it.
"The intensity was there," pitcher Stephen Strasburg said of Williams' initial speech on the first day of camp. "It got me fired up."
Strasburg was more impressed with some of Williams' plans. One is a twist on the necessary, routine and often tedious and dreaded PFP – pitchers' fielding practice.
Williams decided pitchers also should play the part of the first baseman during the drills when the pitchers cover first on ground balls – just so they have a better understanding of the first baseman's role.
That's a variation on an approach legendary Cardinals coach George Kissell used to work on the flaws of up-and-coming stars – like having basestealer Vince Coleman don the catching gear to realize how tough it is to throw out of runners with even half his speed; or letting Lou Brock umpire to help him hone his appreciation of pitches in the strike zone.
Maybe all the Nats need is a little more of the maturation process.
Strasburg has always come off as the lower-key half of the team's wonder boys. Not many can match the Bryce Harper intensity, after all. But leave it to Strasburg to link baseball to feeling his way through his first several months of fatherhood, an experience he says he's loving.
"It's a lot like pitching," he says of figuring it out with wife Rachel as they go. "If I try to do things that other people do, it doesn't really work for me."
Who's watching them?
So, what's Williams' take on Williams?
"The rest of the staff may have to rein me in a little bit," he says. "That's OK."
Take the first day of camp – Williams says he went over his schedule about 5,000 times – and that was before he arrived at 5 a.m. after a night of tossing and turning.
He watched pitchers throw their first bullpens.
"My brain starts going a million miles an hour," he says. "Roles, how would you use him, what kind of stuff does he have and how would it play in a major league game. It's a bit early for that but that's where it goes. I embrace that part of it. That's OK. I'll run through those scenarios a million times."
No apologies for the energy.
"It's completely natural for me to go there," he says. "It's different. It's new. Even more than an infield coach or a third base coach. I look at it as a challenge. I embrace it. It's certainly fun to be here. Here you are, Matt, now go get 'em."
He's pleased his players refer to intensity but claims it's their interpretation of his message.
"I think that's the guys," he says. "I asked them to be efficient and to make sure when they step on the field, we have a purpose."
The Nationals haven't even begun their 30 spring games, let along the six-month grind that counts. Can there be too much intensity this early?
"No," Williams fires back. "Because I don't think we're asking them to do hours upon hours of it. It's 15-minute segments. I want them to concentrate."
The most significant player addition is Doug Fister, who slides into rotation after a trade from Detroit.
He's excited about going to Washington.
Yeah, yeah, the team is good. But so is the Tigers group he left.
"I love the CIA, the FBI, all the different agencies," says Fister, whose father and uncle worked in law enforcement in Merced, Calif. "How they coordinate, how they work, tactically how they handle a situation."
The primo seats behind home plate at Nationals Park often are a who's who of people who run much of what fascinates Fister.
His dad, Larry, was on the SWAT team -- Doug would tag along to their practices – and later the fire department. Fister often rode with his uncle, a detective.
"It's not just go out there and shoot, shoot, shoot," he says. "It's tactically, 'Why would I be doing this? Do I need to make a decision?' It's making every kind of decision in a snap."
Fister finds parallels with a strong clubhouse.
"Brotherhood in firefighting and law enforcement is so big and that's a big thing here as a team," he says. "We're basically family here and it's how you have to approach it. It's something I've witnessed for a long time and it's what I try to emulate every day.
"My dad started out as a police officer when I was young," he says. "I'd watch how they communicate and work together. Same thing as a group when he switched to the fire department. It's the same thing here. Guys bring in their boys and watch how guys prepare every day. It's something you teach by example."
One of spring's great exercises is figuring who's going to make the roster and how position competitions are going to play out. Managers and GMs never tip their hands but, get real, we know they have a pretty good idea how they expect it to play out.
Ah, but where's that list we'd all love to see?
Well, on the first day of camp, somebody had to assign all the Nationals pitchers times to report for their physicals – five guys at a time, every 15 minutes.
We're not saying for sure somebody pulled out THE list to make sure everyone was accounted for, but we're also not buying what was posted on the clubhouse wall was exactly random, either.
First five: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ross Detwiler
(Sounds like a rotation to us.)
Next five: Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen, Jerry Blevins
(Pretty good start on a bullpen, working back from the ninth.)
Now, it should get interesting, considering there are two, maybe three, spots left on an Opening Day roster.
Next five: Ryan Mattheus, Tanner Roark, Luis Ayala (non-roster guy but experienced, hmm), Ross Ohlendorf, Xavier Cedeno.
And so it goes, all the way down the 38th and final guy – top prospect with no chance of making the roster, A.J. Cole.
It will be fun to see who shows up March 31 in New York.
Kicking it in the clubhouse
Reading other tea leaves – or better yet, nameplates – might not be so straightforward.
Space Coast Stadium's home clubhouse has eight lockers in one corner that are larger than the rest.
No mystery that they're assigned to Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond … well, you get it, the starting eight position players.
With maybe one exception: Danny Espinosa has one while Anthony Rendon, who clearly took the second base job from Espinosa last year, doesn't. And it's not a matter of major league service time – 11th-year man Scott Hairston has a smaller locker.
The Nationals have been talking up Espinosa and his opportunity to win back the job all winter. But three years older and (last year, at least) more than 100 fewer batting average points certainly work against him.
The team needs him to rebound from wrist injury issues and a .158 batting average; even still, he's the guy who led the NL in strikeouts while playing every day in 2012. At the very least, a good spring would make Espinosa a candidate for a trade that would bring something in return. He might even play himself into a useful utility role in Washington. And remember, there could be some infield shuffling down the road: Is Ryan Zimmerman's future at first base, especially if Adam LaRoche's 2015 option isn't picked up? If so, is there some combination of the existing guys who could take care of second, third and shortstop?
No matter what, jacking up Espinosa's confidence a bit every time he comes to work in the morning isn't a bad place to start.
The secret weapon
Livan Hernandez, the man who threw the first pitch in Nationals history, is around as part-time coach and part-time ambassador.
Usually seen with a bat and a smile, he's carrying much more of what Williams want disseminated through camp.
"Livo's doing a lot of things," Williams says. "He'll work with the pitching staff on fielding. He was a phenomenal fielder. He'll work with them on holding runners. He did that very well. I look at Livo as a shortstop in a pitcher's body."
Hernandez was the Nationals-Expos franchise in seven of his 17 seasons and his 70 victories there is the most for any of the nine organizations that employed him.
"He was a thinking man's pitcher," Williams says. "If we can take guys with 97 mph fastballs and get them to be a little more thinking man's pitchers, imagine what they could be. He's going to teach guys, when the ball's hit back to them, how to make a really good throw to second base so we can turn two. Or how to hold that guy at first base so he doesn't steal second. He was a fantastic bunter. He could hit. All those things he's going to help us with."
Everybody has a Jeter memory
Reliever Tyler Clippard started in the Yankees organization, got to know Derek Jeter and even works out at the same Tampa facility.
Clippard says he remembers virtually no pitch sequences from the past and only a few specific pitches – usually to get an important out.
There's an exception.
"I faced (Jeter) in 2012 at Nats Park," Clippard says. "First and second one out, I fell behind him 2-0 and I threw a changeup. I thought the umpire called it a ball, but he called it a strike.
"In my mind it was 3-0 and the catcher called changeup and I'm like, 'OK, it's Derek Jeter.' So I threw a changeup that was a called strike. I threw a fastball a little up in the zone and he swung and missed. He started walking back to the dugout and I was like, 'Oh, wow.' "
Records show Clippard's recollection is spot-on.
"There are only a handful of times I can remember pitch to pitch how that at-bat went," he says. "It was because it was him."
So, bragging right around the gym?
"I talked to him about the at-bat after the season and I don't think he remembered it," Clippard says. "That's how significant it was for him."
Ross Detwiler just might have a chunk of June circled on his calendar. That's when Washington has a 10-game road trip, the first seven in San Diego and San Francisco. If he's in the rotation, he's getting a start in California. He might dodge the three games in Oakland in May, but sooner or later …
He'll probably want a new belt.
Detwiler was taken aback when he noticed this imprinted on the back of his uniform belt:
"WARNING: This product may contain a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm."
He got little sympathy – and definitely not a new belt – from a geographically-savvy equipment guy who pointed out to Detwiler there was no warning about Florida or anywhere else but California.
Still, the whole reproductive issue, especially considering we're talking about a belt —well, what's going on?
For the uninitiated outside California, according to the American Cancer Society, such warnings can be found on many products, including electrical wires, jewelry, padlocks, dishes, flashlights and pesticides.
It's part of California's Proposition 65, also called the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, enacted in 1986.
The state has a list of about 800 chemicals that, according to the law, are "known to the State of California to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity."
But, the ACS says on its website, manufacturers using any of the chemicals are only required to use the label, not to tell you what the substance is, where it is in the product, how you might be exposed to it, what the level of risk is or how to reduce your exposure. They don't even have to tell California which chemical is involved or anything else about the potential exposure. If you want more information, you have to contact the manufacturer.
So, take a deep breath, tighten that belt a notch, and go pitch.