Checking in on Spring Training for the Washington Nationals

While there are almost three weeks left in spring training, many of the questions surrounding the Washington Nationals seem to already be answered. Last month, I made some early predictions in regards to how the pitching staff and position player roster and pecking orders would come to form entering the season. Let’s see how I did, Colin Cowherd style.

Where Stephen was right

The starting rotation has roughly pitched to expectations. Aníbal Sánchez has labored a bit, and Max Scherzer has surrendered a pair of home runs through three starts, but none of the top five have had an alarming performance up to this point. They’ve also started 13 of the team’s 14 games this springthe only other went to Erick Fedde the first time through the rotation, when they opted to spread out their outing by going six deep.

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There were many spots up in the air within the bullpen, most of which depended on whether youngsters could repeat their 2018 performances. However, there were three slots that I thought were either locks or essential changes in order for the unit to be successful in 2019: Sean Doolittle as the closer, Trevor Rosenthal as the new setup man, and Joe Ross as a long reliever. The first point isn’t surprising, the second is logical given his track record, but the final position is new.

The Nationals went most of last season without a long manmainly because the cupboard of multi-inning options was bare, with Ross recovering from Tommy John surgery—and it often crippled them. With that said, Joe Ross has a big league arm and experience, so rather than having him build up his endurance in the minors, it seemed wise to do so in the majors, while also addressing a glaring hole. So far this spring, he’s surrendered one earned run and struck out seven batters across six and two-thirds innings, spread across four appearances, typically immediately after the starter has exited—meaning that he is facing big league hitters.

The core of the lineup and almost all of the startersmore on that laterhave shaped up as expected. I had Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Ryan Zimmerman, and Brian Dozier serving as the featured hitters, re-configuring the lefty-righty balance that was theoretically lost with the departure of Bryce Harper. The prediction of Yan Gomes over Kurt Suzuki, as well as the desire to find both of them considerable time in the “A lineup” appears to have hit.

Where Stephen was wrong

There are two elements here that I missed on. First, I had the core of Eaton through Dozier hitting Nos. 1-5, rather than 2-6. From a hitting perspective, it made sense: Trea Turner struggled in the first inning and leading off innings in 2018, and you generally want your best hitters as close to the No. 2 spot as possiblewhere the most high-leverage at bats tend to come. The trouble with that theory was that clogging the bases in front of him puts a limit on his top asset: his speed. Even though I don’t see any of the top hitters as true cloggersnor do the advanced metrics—giving him opportunities to run with the bases empty will always be the more optimal option. Shoutout to “Talk Nats” on Twitter for bringing the gravity of that concept to my attention.

The second piece I was wrong onat least for now—is center field.

My theory was based on a combination of factors. Dave Martinez made it clear last March, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted Victor Robles to continuously receive everyday reps somewhere. Even at that point, he wasn’t opposed to that time coming in the big leagues, until Michael A. Taylor had a customarily strong spring training and won the starting job.

What struck me differently this time around was that he looked much more like a big leaguer last September than he did in his cup of coffee in 2017. Even that season, his production and “hitterishness” suggested that he belonged, but he didn’t look like a big league-ready top five prospect in baseballif that makes any sense. However, his .288/.348/.520 slash line, to go along with a trio of stolen bases, in his most recent 21-game trial run was much more eye-popping. In fact, it was probably the biggest reason why the Nationals let Harper walk this offseason. He’s also more than backed up that production this spring, but Taylor has proven that two can play that game, taking Robles’ path almost entirely out of his hands.

To be determined

The bullpen trio I opened with looks set in stone. Offseason addition Kyle Barraclough has also been virtually unhittable, confirming my belief that he was also a near lock. For what it’s worth, I also thought Sammy Solís was most likely safemore so on the grounds that he was out of minor league options than actual merit—but he has held the opposition to one run on three hits through his first four innings of work. However, he was unconditionally released earlier on Saturday.

Assuming those four are safe, that leaves Matt Grace, Wander Suero, Justin Miller, Jimmy Cordero, and Koda Glover as the frontrunners for what is likely to be three more spotsfour at the absolute most. They’ve all struggled considerably. Each of them has a WHIP of at least 2.00 so far this spring. I still see three of them making the cut if no one else stands out, but that hasn’t been the case so far. Late-season call-up Austen Williams has allowed one baserunner over four innings this spring, and non-roster invitee Scott Copeland has surrendered only two, while striking out seven batters and walking none, over four and two-thirds.

The rest of the roster is likely established, although Howie Kendrick’s hamstring injury throws a dent into plans. The only potential battle for a roster spot is center field. If Taylor wins the starting job, don’t be surprised if Robles starts the season in AAA, despite how polished he looks.

Both of them have been sensational during spring training, hitting a combined .447/.523/.711an OPS (1.234) 125 points higher than Harper’s MVP season—with four stolen bases. So, outside of big league service time, what could be the deciding factor?

San Francisco needs a right-handed outfielder, and has a notably roomy outfield—particularly “triples alley” in right-center. There’s next to no chance Mike Rizzo parts with Robles, but Taylor could be sent out west for a decent prospect or package. In fact, there were once Taylor-for-Joe Panik discussions. For the record, I believe—strongly—that Taylor would be a better fit for the Giants than Adam Jones, mainly due to the disparity in age, range, and speed on the bases.

Last note

The Nationals made their first round of cuts earlier this week.

While likely inconsequential short-term, it is nice to see Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia stick around. Kieboom, in particular, has had a strong showing, which surely inspires confidence that he can be a middle-infield fixture in the majors in the near future. Seeing more of Zimmerman-lookalike Jake Noll is also amusing.

As they say, “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” but most positions are becoming near locks. It’s only a matter of time before we see a bit more clarity, as well.

Author: Stephen Newman

Stephen is a 2018 graduate of Virginia Tech, receiving a bachelor's in multimedia journalism. He's an intelligent sports fan, following three of America's major sports as close as the analysts. Stephen follows the Washington Nationals, Washington Wizards and New England Patriots avidly and of course, keeps up with Virginia Tech athletics. As a student, Stephen worked as the Social Media Editor of The Collegiate Times and contributed in the CT's coverage of Virginia Tech football, men's basketball and women's basketball.

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