WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — After gathering for a morning meeting, and after a long winter filled, at least in part, by the dissatisfaction from last season, the Washington Nationals broke from a circle and started toward their spring training fields, their metal spikes grinding against the pavement, their white uniforms untouched by grass or dirt.
“It’s 10:03!” yelled third base coach Bob Henley, who educated the players about everything from sunscreen to proper hydration in a 20-minute speech. “It’s 10:03 right now!”
And so it was time for baseball, yet again, as the Nationals’ pitchers and catchers began their first official workout beneath a light-blue sky in West Palm Beach. A handful of fans arrived early and lined the fences by the bullpen. Position players will arrive Monday, though Adam Eaton and Trea Turner are already at the facility working out. The Nationals, as a whole, arrive here as spending contenders and that’s more than a lot of teams can say.
With camps starting up across Florida and Arizona, a big group of free agents remain unsigned. That includes Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the two 26-year-old stars of the market, and other established major leaguers in starter Dallas Keuchel, reliever Craig Kimbrel and third baseman Mike Moustakas, among many others. This has sparked frustration among players, signed or not, as whispers of collusion and low-spending franchises have dominated the offseason discussion. There seems to be a consensus that not enough teams are building a winning product, which has stalled the market for higher-priced veterans and tilted the scales toward younger, cheaper options.
It was supposed to be a momentous winter for baseball, with two of its brightest talents hitting free agency and many others generating excitement. It has dissolved into anything but.
“When there are too many teams that are not trying to win that poisons the game, poisons the fan experience and it creates bandwagon fans,” said Nationals ace Max Scherzer, who spoke decisively and at length about the issues facing the sport. “If you’re constantly just trying to go in this win-loss cycle that MLB is pushing you are creating bandwagon fans and that’s not the type of fans you want to create. You want to create the fans that are following the team, year-in, year-out.”
But this has not been the case with the Nationals, this offseason or otherwise, as they went out and signed a marquee starting pitcher in Patrick Corbin and filled holes at catcher, second base, in the bullpen and on the bench.
“Very appreciative to have an ownership group that has been aggressive in free agency and continues to make moves and push financial resources onto the table to be in a win-now mode and do whatever it takes to win,” Scherzer said. “We’re not seeing that across the league, so for me to be in a clubhouse and be a part of a team and organization that does that, right now I’m very thankful. It’s an exciting time to come into spring training with our team.”
The Nationals’ spree included a six-year, $140 million contract for Corbin — still the longest and most-lucrative contract of the offseason — signing two proven catchers in Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes, adding Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough to the bullpen, bringing on veteran starters Anibal Sanchez and Jeremy Hellickson, re-signing Matt Adams and inking power-hitting second baseman Brian Dozier to a one-year deal. These players will join Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Sean Doolittle, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Adam Eaton and Juan Soto, among others, in ushering in the post-Bryce Harper era.
Unless, of course, Harper signs with the Nationals and turns them into a surefire World Series contender. Washington isn’t planning for that to happen. It’s more of a waiting game.
“We’re going to focus on the guys we have today and get them ready to play,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said after the first workout. “Regardless of what happens to Bryce, we got to be ready to play now.”
On Thursday, that mostly meant getting to know one another. Corbin laughed with Scherzer and Hellickson as they stretched, and had earlier introduced himself to Sanchez in the clubhouse. Gomes caught a handful of bullpen sessions and went through each pitcher’s arsenal as they finished. Reliever Justin Miller told Gomes, “Settle right there. It comes back over the middle.” Then Miller threw a fastball that tailed into Gomes’s mitt without the catcher having to move it. Gomes nodded in approval. Miller grinned.
And there were also the younger guys, many nonroster invitees, making their first appearance in major league camp and soaking everything in. James Bourque, a 25-year-old reliever on the 40-man roster, was at the water coolers when he looked up to see a familiar face. After a few moments of silence, he decided to introduce himself.
“Hi, I’m James Bourque,” he said, extending his hand. “How are you?”
“I’m good, how are you?” responded Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, the architect of this team and the person Bourque likely most wants to impress.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” Bourque shot back.
“Well, now we have,” Rizzo said smiling, and that was that.
The Nationals ducked inside soon after, once 90 minutes had gone by, Scherzer had finished a spirited bullpen session and Gomes had worked through a small group of autograph-seeking fans.
There are many workouts in the days ahead, and lots of baseball after that. There was no reason to burn out on the first day. But there was excitement in taking the field together, as a team looking to do something big in 2019, built to compete as many franchises aren’t doing the same.
“This winter we had a lot of fun trying to put together a roster,” Martinez said. “Coming into spring training and seeing the guys that we have, I’m super excited.”