Davey Lopes single-handedly changed the Washington Nationals’ run game with the word “go,” a statement the first base coach would make aloud to sometimes-suspecting base runners in stunning, simple seriousness. The general assumption was that Lopes was so good at reading pitchers’ moves, it didn’t matter if the other team heard him say it. And if a Nationals base runner heard him say it . . . well, the expectation was clear.
Under Lopes, working within former manager Dusty Baker’s aggressive mind-set, the Nationals stole the third-most bases in the National League last year — 108, thanks in large part to the contributions of Trea Turner. The year before they stole the fifth-most bases (121) in the National League, also due in part to Turner and an organization-wide emphasis on increasing contact and athleticism. How will that emphasis, and the Nationals’ recent propensity for theft, change in a post-Lopes era, with new Manager Dave Martinez leading the way?
While the Nationals stole 229 bases over the last two seasons — a mark that would have been even higher had Turner not missed months with a broken wrist last year — the Joe Maddon-led (and by extension, Martinez-led) Chicago Cubs stole 128 (62 in 2017 and 66 in 2016). That disparity results mostly from Maddon’s well-documented, clearly spoken aversion to pushing the issue on the bases. Will Martinez be the same?
Martinez hasn’t spoken much about the run game, and has no managerial track record of his own to analyze. His first base coach, Tim Bogar, will probably emphasize different responsibilities than Lopes did.
“My job is to make sure they’re prepared when they get to first base to get to second base,” Bogar said. “It’s not my decision whether to tell them to go or not. It’s just so if they do have an opportunity, I’m there as a resource for them.”
Turner seemed to think little would change when he spoke to reporters in December, though in fairness, he had yet to have any significant conversations with anyone involved.
“[Bogar] basically told me, whatever works for me, he’ll help me and we’ll communicate with that. I haven’t talked to him much more than that,” Turner said. “But I think it’s just a matter of being confident. I think that’s one thing I took away from [Lopes]. He was always running no matter what, and he got mad at you if you didn’t. I’ve told you guys that time and time again. It goes a long way, and I think that’s kind of what I’m taking away from him, his aggression and confidence.”
Exactly how much the Nationals front office will dictate the state of their run game remains to be seen, but Martinez is taking over an organization whose priorities recently shifted. Over the last two to three seasons, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and his staff have tried to make the Nationals a more contact-heavy, athletic offense that can push the issue in multiple ways, instead of sitting back and waiting for big swings.
With Turner at the top of the order, and Adam Eaton returning from injury, the Nationals have two proven base stealers at the top of the lineup. Michael A. Taylor, who seems likely to be the every day center fielder, is a 20-20 candidate. Wilmer Difo, who will fill in for Daniel Murphy until Murphy’s knee heals — and will likely spell him at second base more often than he did last year for the same reason — is as speedy as anyone but Turner. The Nationals’ up-and-coming young outfielders, such as Victor Robles, also boast elite speed. The manager has changed. The organizational philosophy, as implemented by those building the roster, hasn’t.
Sure, the Nationals’ only free agent signing of the offseason — hulking first baseman Matt Adams — doesn’t exactly fit the speed-and-contact mold, but neither did the man he is replacing, Adam Lind. Matt Wieters is another who bucks that self-imposed trend, but he was an uncharacteristic signing, made more out of opportunity than as part of the initial plan. The Nationals’ interest in athletic Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, and affinity for young, relatively speedy Pedro Severino, shows a lean toward agility, even at a position rarely known for containing much of it.
So Martinez inherits a lineup built to run, with elite speed at three positions (left, center, shortstop) and in utility man Wilmer Difo, and strong speed in Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. Harper seems unlikely to risk injury in his all-important contract year, but he has the ability to take the extra base in big moments. Rendon can run, too, though his moves on the bases will likely be dictated more by where he’s hitting in the lineup.
Either way, despite coming from an organization decidedly unconcerned with aggressive base running and stolen bases, Martinez likely won’t slow the Nationals much this season. The roster is built to gain advantages on the bases, and to the extent its members are willing to impose this desire on a rookie manager, their front office will probably want to seize every advantage the Nationals can get.
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