The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Free agent signee Matt Adams is happy to be with Nationals: ‘He’s a little giddy right now’

Matt Adams signed with the Nationals to back up Ryan Zimmerman at first base. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Matt Adams didn’t want to extend his first foray into free agency longer than necessary. He didn’t want to take any chances. He could do without the stress. As a result, his demands were relatively simple. He wanted to play for a team expected to contend for a World Series, and he wanted to work in a great clubhouse. Culture was important.

So when the Washington Nationals came calling, he reached out to Chris Heisey, a former Nationals outfielder. Heisey talked up his old organization, and Adams was convinced. He agreed to a one-year contract in mid-December worth $4 million, with another $500,000 in possible incentives, as his peers languished in a cold free agent world.

“A pitch really wasn’t needed,” Adams said. “I heard nothing but great things about how they go about their business.”

The deal was initially met with some confusion from observers who assumed Adams would have more suitors fresh off belting 20 home runs with an .841 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 367 plate appearances last season. Not only was Adams committing to a one-year deal at a salary recent history indicated was relatively cheap for a 29-year-old with his slugging ability, but he was committing to a team that already employed Ryan Zimmerman, an established starting first baseman coming off a resurgent all-star season. Adams signed the dotted line knowing he would play every day only if there was an injury.

Stephen Strasburg started this spring much the way he ended last fall

But over the next couple of months, as a slow-moving free agent market treated power-hitting first basemen as marginal pieces, the decision transitioned from premature to prescient. While Adams found his home before the new year, a few peers only recently sealed jobs.

Last week, the Kansas City Royals signed Lucas Duda, whose 113 Weighted Runs Created Plus last season was just better than Adams’s 112, to a one-year contract worth $3.5 million. The salary can climb another $1.3 million with incentives. On Friday, Adam Lind, the player Adams is essentially replacing as Washington’s left-handed-hitting backup first baseman and emergency left fielder, signed a minor league deal with the New York Yankees. He was added as a depth piece and isn’t projected to make the Opening Day roster. And so it goes for a 34-year-old slugger limited with the glove but coming off a season in which he compiled 14 home runs with an .875 OPS and was one of baseball’s best pinch hitters.

“I’m just glad that we got him,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said of Adams. “He’s a great addition. To have a guy like that who cannot only come off the bench but potentially can play every day” is valuable.

Like Lind, Adams mashes right-handed pitching and is well below league average against left-handers. Last season, Adams hit 17 of his 20 home runs, batted .295 and posted an .896 OPS off righties in 304 plate appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves. Lefties held him to a .180 batting average and .583 OPS in 63 plate appearances. The sample size, while not a full season’s slate, is representative of his career splits.  The striking disparity is strange considering the most memorable moment of Adams’s career: crushing a curveball from Clayton Kershaw, one of the greatest left-handed pitchers in baseball history, for a go-ahead three-run home run in Game 4 of the 2014 National League Division Series.

To channel that swing more consistently, Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long and assistant hitting coach Joe Dillon have worked with Adams on picking up left-handed pitching better. Long said the improvement starts with shifting his feet to create a better line of vision. Adams’s stance, Long determined, was too closed off against southpaws. It was the same diagnosis Long made on Curtis Granderson when Long was with the Yankees and Granderson joined the team before the 2010 season. Granderson hit 16 homers off left-handers in 2011 after finishing with just four a season earlier.

“He’s a little giddy right now,” Long said of Adams  before games started this spring. “We’re going to have to keep him humble because he’s not humble right now, and I hope it stays that way.”

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle is more than just his fastball

The next layer in Adams’s makeover has been having him face lefty curveballs and sliders from a machine in the cage. To make the simulation more difficult, Adams moves a few feet closer to the machine with each breaking pitch and then back to the original spot 60 feet 6 inches away. He sees the pitches from different slots.

“This is a whole new world for me,” Adams said.

Adams hasn’t had many opportunities to carry his work into live games because he missed a week with a significant blister on his right heel. He said the blister developed because he wore one pair of socks instead of his usual two pairs. By the time he noticed, it already ripped open.

“You live and you learn,” Adams acknowledged.

He returned Sunday for his third game of the spring. He didn’t face a lefty but went 3 for 3 with a triple — blister and all — against right-handers Alex Wilson and Drew VerHagen in Washington’s 6-2 split-squad win over the Detroit Tigers.

“Don’t peak too early,” Zimmerman cracked to Adams in the clubhouse after he exited the game.

In addition to backing Zimmerman up at first base, Adams will see time in left field this spring in case he is needed there during the season, Martinez said. Adams had never played in the outfield until the final two weeks of spring training a year ago. With Matt Carpenter cemented at first base, the Cardinals were determined to find Adams at-bats. They decided his offensive ability outweighed the inexperience. Adams ended up starting five games in left field for St. Louis before he was traded to Atlanta to play first base until Freddie Freeman returned.

It was an endless pursuit to find Adams a spot in the field to get him in the batter’s box. This year, the search may be more difficult. Martinez has insisted he will find consistent playing time for his bench players, but there are only so many opportunities. Adams is fine with it. It’s what he signed up for.

Read more on the Nationals:

In a shocker, Nats’ Max Scherzer gets the best of Mets’ Tim Tebow. Again.

Boswell: Collusion or common sense? Either way, baseball may be headed toward a labor war

Lose now, win later: Tanking as a strategy does not appear to be going anywhere