LAS VEGAS — There were no baseball fields at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. No innings to play. No gloves or bats aside from the ones that were showcased and auctioned off at the league’s annual trade show.
But there was talk. A whole lot of talk. All managers and executives and agents could do is talk at the winter meetings in Las Vegas this week — well, aside from texting each other nonstop, or placing a bet or three, or inhaling so much cigarette smoke that it felt like you hadn’t breathed fresh air since all 30 teams had a chance to win the 2018 World Series. Because maybe you hadn’t. And maybe you should get a doctor to check out your lungs.
So the Washington Nationals, like every franchise, were left talking about a season that is still four months away and a roster that is still forming. Those talks included buzz words and phrases such as “fundamentals” and “run prevention” and “we are going to score runs in different ways.” The word “power” did not come up often, unless specifically provoked, and it is not yet clear if the Nationals are accepting a potential weakness or unwilling to express a desire to address it.
“I think we’re going to have to win games and score a little bit differently this year,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday when asked to assess the Nationals' power. “Pitching, defense, athleticism is really going to come to the forefront. And scoring runs is going to be a premium. It’s been a premium throughout baseball, and we’ve got to do much better at offensive efficiency and doing the small things to score more runs.”
There is not one way to win a baseball game. There is also not much benefit in admitting to a lack of power in December, as that could only upset players or bruise the Nationals' leverage on the free agent and trade markets. But results favor power-hitting teams these days, and the Nationals' current roster, however unfinished, holds a lot less pop than their roster for most of last season. That team included star outfielder Bryce Harper (who hit a team-high 34 home runs last year), slugging second baseman Daniel Murphy (who is good for around 20 homers when healthy), first baseman Matt Adams (who finished with 21 in just 121 games, a bulk of them as a pinch-hitter, with the Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals in 2018) and bench bat Mark Reynolds (who hit 13 in 206 at-bats after joining the Nationals in mid-May). There is a chance none of those players will be on the team in 2019, even though all four are free agents and the Nationals have needs that align with their skills.
So there is a chance the Nationals will be left on the wrong side of the latest trends, unless their strong commitment to starting pitching and situational hitting can help mask the power void.
“I’m comfortable with our offense and our ability to score runs and win games,” Rizzo said in Las Vegas. “I like the roster that we have currently. I think that we’ll score runs in a different manner. We’ll play the game in a different manner than we did last year, probably. I still think that the upgrade at different positions and the upgrade on defense will help us play the game a little bit different.”
Seven of the eight teams that made the first round of the playoffs finished in the top 10 in regular season home runs in 2018. The New York Yankees hit a record 267 homers. Then came the Los Angeles Dodgers (235), the Milwaukee Brewers (218), the Cleveland Indians (216), the Colorado Rockies (210), the World Series-winning Boston Red Sox (208) and the Houston Astros (205). That does not mean they all ignored the “little things,” such as moving runners over, taking an extra base and manufacturing runs with singles. It just means that home runs factored heavily into their success. Many hitters are focused on hitting the ball in the air, influenced by new-age theories centered on launch angle and spin rate. Pitchers are throwing fastballs harder than ever, leading to spikes in both homers and strikeouts. And small ball, a strategy built on those little things, is harder to win with if power isn’t paired with it.
The Nationals ranked 13th in the majors with 191 total home runs, and 71 of those were hit by Harper, Reynolds, Murphy and Adams, with the latter two players contributing before they were traded away in mid-August. The Nationals do not need to directly replace each home run — roster construction is not that simple — but they have taken limited measures to do so. Their catchers combined to hit just 12 home runs last season, and their two new ones, veterans Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki, combined for 28. But each will have his plate appearances shaved by the presence of the other, meaning their collective numbers from last year don’t necessarily translate to the coming one.
From there, at least until more moves are made, the Nationals will lean entirely on returning players. Juan Soto hit 22 home runs in 116 games of a standout 19-year-old season. Anthony Rendon can get to 25 home runs if he plays a full season. Ryan Zimmerman provides power when healthy, but the 34-year-old appeared in just 85 games last year. Trea Turner brings surprising pop at shortstop and hit a career-high 19 homers in 2018. And 21-year-old Victor Robles, who is expected to start in the outfield if Harper departs, could hit around 12 in a full-time role.
Could that all add up to enough power? The Nationals aren’t saying it needs to.
“I don’t know, for me right now we’re getting more athletic,” Manager Dave Martinez said when asked if it was important to restock the power they are losing. “So we’re going to do different things, whether it’s hitting and running, bunting a little bit more. But we’re fundamentally going to learn to play the game and play it right. I’m looking forward to it. I think we have the players that are able to hit the ball out of the park and hitting doubles and bunting.”
There could be more offensive upgrades coming, as the Nationals were quick to make five moves this offseason but are not quite finished. They are exploring the market for a second baseman and have had “a few” discussions with the representation for DJ LeMahieu, one of the best available at that position. They will probably seek a left-handed first baseman to pair with Zimmerman and come off the bench as a pinch hitter. They could make more moves to deepen their bench.
Otherwise, the Nationals will lean on “run prevention” and “scoring runs in different ways” and so on. Those could be guiding strategy points that only appear as cliches, especially given that the Nationals will have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin atop their rotation. Or they could be placeholders to serve as the team’s mission until the roster takes full shape.
Time will decide between the former and the latter. There is not much else to do but talk at this time of the year. And, as of now, “power” is only a small part of the Nationals' vocabulary.