Transition comes in its own time, at its own pace, most visible in hindsight, most necessary after turmoil. And in the past two months, transition came quickly to the Washington Nationals. Despite retaining their entire coaching staff after a disappointing 2018 season, the Nationals have rebuilt their image and remade their clubhouse with purposeful speed, recasting their roster as a speedy, energetic bunch unlike any they have had before, at least on paper.
Assuming Bryce Harper signs elsewhere, and the Nationals are proceeding as if he will, they will likely make three more substantial moves before the beginning of spring training. They are hunting for second base upgrades, with Josh Harrison and Brian Dozier as prime targets. They could use a true matchup lefty in the bullpen, and they have plenty to choose from before heading to West Palm Beach, Fla. They are also hunting another veteran starter to fill out the rotation after agreeing to a two-year deal with veteran Anibal Sanchez on Thursday, with Wade Miley near the top of their list. If the Nationals sign those three players — or players like them — their projected 25-man roster will look something like this:
C: Yan Gomes
1B: Ryan Zimmerman
3B: Anthony Rendon
SS: Trea Turner
OF: Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Adam Eaton
Bench: Kurt Suzuki, Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick, Wilmer Difo, Michael A. Taylor
SP: Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, TBD
RP: Sean Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Justin Miller, Matt Grace, one of Wander Suero/Sammy Solis/Koda Glover, and TBD
The bullpen will be subject to change, determined by spring training performance and ever-changing health. But generally speaking, the Nationals can pencil in a roster that looks similar to this one. If they do, that roster will include, at most, 13 players who were also on the Opening Day roster in 2018. It will include none of the same catchers, one of the same starting outfielders, two of five starting pitchers and their closer. It will look and feel much younger.
For a few years now, General Manager Mike Rizzo and his staff have spoken about playing a different brand of baseball, the kind in which speed and defense and doing the little things become priorities, and egos and power and plodding sluggers become antiquated. This winter, they finally rebuilt the roster to match that paradigm. Suzuki and Gomes are mobile catchers who can provide steady production. Zimmerman and Adams are functional defensively and reliable offensively. Whoever they sign, the Nationals’ second base defense will improve over what hobbled Daniel Murphy gave them last year. And a healthy Eaton, 20-year-old Soto and energetic Robles (or former Gold Glove finalist Taylor) will make up the best defensive outfield this team has had in years.
The rotation will look different, too. The Nationals effectively replaced Gio Gonzalez with the younger, more competitive Corbin — a clear upgrade. Gonzalez and recently traded Tanner Roark were among the game’s most reliable starters over the past four seasons in the sense that they would take the mound every five days, but weren’t particularly reliable when they got there. Both were maddeningly inconsistent in 2018. Both were owed more money than the Nationals will likely need to pay their replacements. Yet replacing both will involve some risk. If Sanchez pitches like he did in 2018 and stays healthy, the Nationals will look smart for trading Roark. If they do not, they will likely regret it.
Similar transition is happening in the bullpen, where Rizzo traded away aging veterans Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Shawn Kelley in his midseason purge, then chose to replace them with younger options. He signed the energetic, hard-throwing Rosenthal. He traded for up-and-coming righty Barraclough, who struggled late last season and allowed the Nationals to buy low. He traded for hard-throwing Tanner Rainey, who might not crack the Opening Day roster, but seems likely to emerge in the majors eventually. And in replacing veterans with those who have something to prove, Rizzo changed the complexion of the bullpen, exorcising complacency and infusing energy and flexibility. This, in some ways, is what he has done with the entire roster.
Zimmerman and Rendon remain as homegrown stars imprinted with the good and the bad of recent Nationals history. Turner remains a steadying, smart force up the middle, and a player always willing to answer for his team as a whole. Eaton is emerging as a more vocal clubhouse presence, something he will be able to do more easily as a healthy player in his third year with the team than as an injury-riddled player in his first and second years. Doolittle is suddenly a veteran member of a new-look bullpen that will benefit from his calm and calculated leadership — a bullpen that will also benefit from Rosenthal’s fiery spirit and stuff. And if Harper leaves, this will be Scherzer’s team, publicly and privately.
Theirs will still be a veteran roster, with Nationals staples punctuating every unit. But it will include more excitement, more energy and more players grateful for the opportunity than used to having it. Who knows what difference that could make, or if it will matter at all.
But for a team whose shortcomings always seemed more philosophical than talent-based, overhaul provides reason for optimism. The 2019 season will be different, played by a more energetic team against a far more competitive division. The 2019 season will be decisive, with Manager Dave Martinez’s future, and even Rizzo’s, likely to be affected by how this team responds to falling flat last year. And the 2019 season will mark transition, from one era to a different one, the exact difference best defined in time — most likely, it seems, by whether this team finally breaks through in October.