This has to be the Nationals' year

The signing of Max Scherzer has Bryce Harper thinking about a World Series ring. Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/Getty Images

"Where's my ring?"

--Bryce Harper, on his reaction after the Nationals signed Max Scherzer

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- So it turns out the rings haven't been designed yet, let alone sized for Bryce Harper's finger. Or anyone else's finger.

So apparently, MLB is going to insist on making the Washington Nationals play out the season first. Excellent idea.

But since he brought this up …

Here's a question it's hard not to wonder about when you look at what shapes up, on the old drawing board, to be this season's designated Best Team in Baseball:

Do the Nationals have to win?

Does this have to be the year -- the year they win the World Series, or at least play in it?

This is, after all, the final season before free agency for three invaluable pieces of this roster -- Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and Doug Fister. This is, after all, the season that follows the $210 million signing of Max Scherzer, for reasons that don't totally compute unless the Nats are in full-throttle, go-for-it mode.

So does "Where's my ring?" sum up not just Bryce Harper's feelings, but everyone's feelings, about this team and this season?

"I'd say that everyone's got their own fuel. Know what I mean?" Desmond said Friday, a couple of hours before his juggernaut would play its second game of spring training. "Everyone operates in their own way. Bryce has never been short of words. And maybe that makes him play well. But I tend to be a little more reserved. And I think everyone's got their own formula."

And that formula, at least the way it comes out of other people's mouths, may not necessarily sound a whole lot like "Where's my ring?" Just thought you'd like to know that.

"Does this have to be the year? I would say that's our desire every year," said the manager, Matt Williams. "So to hear that said, for us, is like, 'Yeah, OK. That's what we try to do every time, every year.'

"It makes for good stories, good conversation and all that stuff," the manager went on. "But our thinking is, we look at the big picture, of course. And we want to be the last team standing, of course. Like everybody else does. But we also look at the intricacies of the game and try to win today. And then try to do it again the next day."

The manager speaks with the tunnel vision anyone in baseball needs in order to survive a season, a tunnel vision he's learned well in his nearly three decades in pro baseball. Where Bryce Harper sees parade floats, Matt Williams sees the cold math of every baseball season.

Before the Nationals can win the World Series, they have more than 200 more baseball games to play first: 30 more exhibition games, a 162-game season and a minimum of 11 more in October. So before they figure out where the parade is going to start, the manager has a few details to attend to.

Which didn't stop him from attaching this pithy little Quote of the Day to the top of his workout schedule on the very first full-squad workout of spring training:

"The road to the World Series begins here."

So that pretty much says it all, right? This is a team that understands exactly what it's built to do. No one denies that. It just needs to get through the day first if that's OK.

"It's a big topic," Williams said. "I know that. We don't think in those terms, though. We think of this out, this pitch, this game. And that's the way it is. So the big-picture stuff is for [other] folks to talk about. And certainly, we have discussion about it. But we have to be mindful that we don't get too far over our skis or too far ahead of ourselves, because we have to win today."

Well, not today exactly, because today only counts in the Grapefruit League standings. And those standings won't lead to anyone getting any kind of ring, except maybe around the eyes. But you get the idea.

What those of us on the outside also get, though, is that the window for the Nationals to win with this particular star-studded group is almost certainly going to come slamming down on their knuckles in a few months. And that's just reality.

If the Nationals thought Zimmermann was likely to sign on long-term, there's a good chance Scherzer wouldn't work here right now. If they thought Desmond was likely to sign on long-term, there's a good chance Yunel Escobar wouldn't be on this roster right now.

So that sense of urgency will hang there, in the haze over the ballpark, every night all summer. Gazing at it is optional, but it's not going away, from now until October. And Zimmermann wasn't pretending otherwise, even on the day he made his first start of spring training.

Asked how conscious he is of what a big season this is, for both his team and himself, Zimmermann replied, with zero hesitation: "Yeah, it's going to be huge. We have a lot of free agents coming up after this season. So if it's going to be any year, it's going to be this year, and we all know that. And we're all getting ready for a big year."

But what the manager sees, when he looks at Desmond and Zimmermann in particular, are two guys who aren't fixated on their impending pay days. They're fixated on exactly what he's fixated on -- winning.

"I know that the guys on our team who are potential free agents are really excited about playing for the Nationals this year," Williams said. "And they're not looking past that. And that's a comforting feeling for all of us."

Williams said he's never had to discuss the ramifications of free agency with either Desmond or Zimmermann, because they already get it.

"They're professional guys," he said. "And they understand that their teammates depend on them, and that they have to be completely focused. And they are extremely focused guys anyway. They're not going to go past today's spring training game against the Braves, or Opening Day, or any time beyond that, until the time arises that there has to be a decision made."

Oh, those decisions are coming, all right. And people around the sport would be shocked, at this point, if those decisions led to either Desmond or Zimmermann wearing a W on his cap after 2015. So there's no escaping what that means.

This is in fact the year. This has to be the year. It's just not the time of year to be asking questions like, "Where's my ring?" Because no World Series ever played was won by talking the talk. So it's time for the Nationals to walk the walk. One day at a time.

"I think you've pretty much got to take it day by day," Desmond said. "That's like my whole M.O. this year, is to take it day by day and enjoy every day. And where we're at, at the end, is going to be where we're at.

"I mean, sitting here telling everybody that we're going to win X amount of games and this and that, when we've played one game of spring training -- that," said Ian Desmond, "doesn't really do anybody any good."