WOODBRIDGE, Va. -- There in the Potomac Nationals' clubhouse, on a table normally reserved for some meager sandwich-making materials, sat several steaming tins of comparatively gourmet offerings -- steak, chicken, rice and vegetables. In the no-frills world of Minor League baseball, such extravagance usually means one thing: rehabilitation assignment.

This postgame spread came courtesy of veteran big leaguer Chad Tracy, one of two Washington Nationals, along with Drew Storen, rehabbing with Potomac in the high Class A Carolina League last Thursday. While his teammates finished a 14-3 victory over the Frederick Keys at Pfitzner Stadium, Tracy compared that day's pregame peanut butter and jelly to the luxuries at the game's highest level.

"It's humbling. You come down here and see how these guys are grinding every day," said Tracy, who played five innings at third base on the second day of his stint with Potomac. "It gives you a new respect for what they're doing. We're living the good life up there."

Minor League rehab assignments serve a crucial role. Tracy and Storen became the ninth and 10th representatives from first-place Washington to rehab with Potomac this year, and Xavier Nady followed soon after. In recent weeks, rehabbers from other organizations have included the Dodgers' Matt Kemp, the Phillies' Ryan Howard and the Red Sox's Carl Crawford.

Rehab assignments can last as long as 20 days for non-pitchers or 30 days for pitchers, but frequently are much shorter. Still, they impact the big leaguers, their temporary teammates, and coaches and the affiliates themselves, in ways beyond the culinary.

Pfitzner Stadium isn't a gleaming, new facility, but its location about 30 miles from Nationals Park makes it a go-to destination for Washington's rehabbers. A player can work with team doctors, go to his rehab game, then sleep in his own bed.

It's a nice bonus for Potomac. According to general manager Josh Olerud, a Ryan Zimmerman appearance generated the team's best Monday attendance of last season, with about 1,500 extra walkups. A Jayson Werth visit later this summer could have a similar effect.

"If our fans know a guy's going to go on the shelf, that he's going to come through here, that's unbelievable," Olerud said from a trailer serving as a makeshift office after a recent fire at the stadium. "[Washington Nationals] fans are our fans, so it's one big circle, and I think that's a big thing."

For the rehabbing players, the assignments are a chance to build arm strength, shake off rust or find timing in a low-pressure setting where failure won't hurt the big club. For the 24-year-old Storen, it's also about sharpening his mindset.

Storen pitched briefly for Potomac in 2009 on his way up the ladder, and he believes consistency more than talent separates big leaguers, so he didn't take his competition lightly in starting his rehab with a scoreless inning.

"You can't just come in here and act like, 'Just because I've pitched in the big leagues, I can throw my glove out there and I'll be all right,'" Storen said.

Tracy's first Class A experience since 2001 reminded him of the amenities one takes for granted in the Majors. The 32-year-old is in his eighth MLB season, although he last played 100 games at that level in '06. He has spent time down at Triple-A and in Japan, but Class A ball is a different animal.

"I think it gives you new respect for what these guys are doing down here, busting their [butt] every day," Tracy said.

That respect manifests in the treatment of the Minor Leaguers.

Of course, there are the spreads. That's a tradition nearly every rehabber observes. Usually it's something hearty from a place such as Outback Steakhouse, according to Potomac outfielder Michael Taylor.

"It's always a treat," Taylor said. "And I think just the gesture is the nicest part, that they'd do that out of their own money."

The big leaguers, awash in unlimited high-quality gear, also frequently leave items behind. After Michael Morse spent three games with Potomac this season, he gifted Taylor a pile of upgrades, including bats and cleats.

Then there are the less tangible contributions.

Potomac's Brian Rupp is in his 12th season as a Minor League manager after an eight-year playing career in the Cardinals' system. He described his interactions with rehabbers as overwhelmingly positive and added that most are respectful of their obligation to help their younger colleagues.

Catcher Carlos Maldonado tutored Potomac's Latin players about conducting interviews in English. Morse talked to a struggling Taylor about how to create extension in his swing and drive the ball to the opposite field. Catcher David Freitas watched Tracy take batting practice and paid attention to how Storen attacked hitters, absorbing whatever he could.

Infielder Rick Hague always looks forward to the rehab assignments, for benefits as simple as observing pregame routines.

"It's always pretty cool, because they've been in the game for so long, most of them, and they have knowledge we don't have yet," Hague said. "So it's fun to watch how they approach a game."

These experiences stick. Rupp still recalls former Cardinals catcher Tom Pagnozzi playing with his Double-A Arkansas team in 1997, and taking care of the tab for a nice team barbeque. Tracy remembers picking the brains of Curt Schilling and Shea Hillenbrand with the D-backs' Triple-A Tucson club in 2003, and now he tries to make himself similarly available.

Before they were teammates in Washington, Storen soaked in what he described as an "eye-opening" bullpen session Jordan Zimmermann threw during a rehab stint, every pitch going right where the injured Zimmermann intended. Storen hopes he can impact someone in the same way.

"If at any point I can help somebody, it's a great feeling," Storen said. "I enjoy that. It's one part of this process that's actually given back to me a bit, being able to talk to guys."

Just don't forget the grub.