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After Anthony Rendon’s stellar season, Nationals are just hoping for more of the same

Anthony Rendon is looking to repeat his 2017 season, in which he finished fifth in NL MVP voting. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Trea Turner was stunned when he walked into the Washington Nationals clubhouse at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches last week. Anthony Rendon, his favorite baseball player and locker neighbor, had a close-cropped haircut. His long hair was gone, a casualty of the offseason.

“It’s different. I don’t know if he looks younger or skinnier,” Turner said. “I don’t know … It’s just a big change I guess. I actually didn’t care for the man bun and all the curls. I just wasn’t prepared for it.”

The Nationals can only hope it’s the only significant change for Rendon in 2018. Still one of baseball’s under-the-radar elite players, Rendon finished sixth in the National League MVP voting last season after not making the NL all-star team. He finished with career highs in batting average (.301), home runs (25), doubles (41), on-base percentage (.403) and slugging percentage (.533). He was one of three qualified batters in baseball to compile more walks (84) than strikeouts (82). All while being one of baseball’s best defensive third basemen.

“I tried to drive the ball more,” the 27-year-old Rendon said Wednesday morning. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I tried to Daniel Murphy it and launch angle and tried to hit it at a certain degree, but I did take one of his terms: Get my A-swing, I guess you could say.”

New Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long, the man credited for unleashing Murphy’s potential with the New York Mets in 2015, wasn’t one of the people overlooking Rendon.

On Tuesday afternoon, Long offered his initial impressions of some players he’s worked with over the course of a 30-minute media session. He got technical, a couple times getting up for a demonstration, as he explained how he thinks each player could improve in the batter’s box and answer questions about other hitting topics. He spoke about, or at least hinted at, ways he believes he can help most of the players mentioned improve. There was one notable exception: Rendon.

“I’m leaving Anthony Rendon,” Long said. “He’s one guy I’m not going to be able to help out too much.”

Long said he marveled at Rendon when he watched him bat from the other dugout with the Mets the past three seasons. He said he noticed Rendon was standing closer to the plate last year, an adjustment that made him more compact while still being able to hit the ball inside. He called him a magician.

“He’s always on time,” Long said. “It looks effortless. His mechanics are flawless. He’s in line. He’s balanced. He just does a lot of things right.”

Rendon, who will make $12.3 million in 2018, is two seasons away from free agency. If retained, he would serve as a centerpiece in what could be a world without Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy populating the middle of Washington’s lineup beyond just one season. At NatsFest in December, he said he’s open to listening to the Nationals if they want to discuss a contract extension, but added he believed his words were taken out of context.

“I think you all kind of exploited that,” said Rendon, a Scott Boras client. “You all made it seem like, ‘Oh, I want a contract right now.’ And I think what I was talking about was, ‘Yeah, I’m open to listen to it.’ It’s kind of like if anybody wants a promotion, you’re obviously going to want to hear about it, you’re not going to want to just ignore it. But, hey, I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey, I want my extension now.’ I’m open to hear about it.”

In the meantime, Rendon spent his offseason getting married and watching his beloved first-place Houston Rockets exceed his expectations. He wanted to cut his hair for the November wedding, but his wife didn’t want him to, so he waited until later in the offseason. After a year and a half of growing his hair out, the maintenance had gotten annoying. He was over having to put product in it or wear hats.

“It was probably not a good start to our marriage,” he quipped.

The hair isn’t gone, though. Rendon said it’s in a plastic bag back home in Texas. He has plans for it in the future, though he wouldn’t disclose them. Maybe, he joked, the haircut will help him receive the accolades that have eluded him.

“I’m thinking [with] my new haircut, I’m a professional now,” Rendon said with a smile. “I’m trying to show everybody to take me seriously. So maybe I’ll get more all-star votes.”

Read more:

‘It’s not fair to my teammates or myself’: Bryce Harper explains why he won’t talk about 2019

Daniel Murphy dreams about at-bats, but that’s as close as he’ll get to playing for a while

Whether Bryce Harper stays or goes, the Nationals have played this just right

Don Mattingly to Bryce Harper: ‘Take care of your business and we’ll take care of ours’

Nats’ Sean Doolittle avoided Metro for weeks after teen told him he looked like Seth Rogen

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