WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The first four days of Washington Nationals spring training were filled with the drumbeat of drills: bullpen sessions, long toss, ground balls off the pitcher’s mound and defensive work for the catchers.
That will soon change. The Nationals’ position players officially report Monday, joining the pitchers and catchers who convened at the team facility this past Wednesday. The early-arriving position players included Adam Eaton, Trea Turner, top prospect Carter Kieboom, Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman. Third baseman Anthony Rendon and utility man Howie Kendrick arrived Sunday.
Here is what to expect once the full team gathers to begin preparing for the Grapefruit League opener Saturday against the Houston Astros:
Rizzo is done talking about Harper
Reports (and tireless rumors) are starting to bubble that Bryce Harper has finally found his match with the Philadelphia Phillies. Until that, or anything else, officially happens with the star outfielder’s free agency, the Nationals remain in the mix to bring him back — even if they are no longer considered among the favorites — because of Harper’s relationship with the organization and agent Scott Boras’s relationship with the Lerner family.
But when asked about Harper on Sunday, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo looked ahead, a stance he took by committing the team’s offseason resources to a $140 million contract for starting pitcher Patrick Corbin and by making a handful of other moves.
“We’re going to talk about the players we have on the team,” Rizzo said. “We’re not going to talk about players that we don’t have on the team.”
If Harper comes up in conversations around the Nationals’ facility this week, it is likely both players and coaches will follow Rizzo’s lead.
Zimmerman should play more this spring
Zimmerman’s 2018 spring training regimen drew much criticism after he slumped at the start of the season and ultimately missed two months with an oblique strain. But even if Zimmerman does not see a correlation between his spring preparations and his regular season woes, he is planning to be on the field more in the coming weeks.
Last spring, the 34-year-old first baseman spent almost all of his time on the minor league fields and only had two at-bats in major league games. He still got around 50 at-bats, counting those against minor league pitching, and that is the amount he is aiming for this spring. But he and Manager Dave Martinez acknowledged that appearing in more games will help him adjust to being on his feet more, get into a defensive rhythm and acclimate to preparing for each pitch.
“It’s not so much that you have to play nine innings,” said Zimmerman, who did not lay out a specific plan. “It’s more just playing, rebounding, coming back day after day doing that. Four or five days in a row, even if you only play four or five innings, you still have to go through the whole routine of getting ready to play a game and then going out there for those four or five innings.”
Even though injuries limited Zimmerman to 85 games last year, he was an above-average hitter with an .824 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 13 home runs. That shows how productive he still can be when healthy. It just has been a struggle to remain so — a process that never ends.
“The key for me is to stay on the field. Two years ago, I did. Last year, I didn’t. When I stay on the field, I still feel like I’m a really good player,” he said. “And that’s the goal. Everything we do in the offseason and during the season is geared toward that.”
Kendrick says he’s ready to go
Howie Kendrick, 35, missed almost all of last season with a torn right Achilles’ tendon and is eager to return to the field.
The veteran called Martinez in the lead-up to spring training and asked — or perhaps demanded — not to be held back. He was equally animated about his status when he stopped by Martinez’s office Sunday. Martinez is wary of pushing Kendrick too hard early on, given his age and recent injury, but the manager said he is encouraged by Kendrick’s enthusiasm and progress since he started running on an antigravity treadmill this winter.
The Nationals missed Kendrick last season. The veteran’s versatility allows Martinez to use him at second base, first base and in the corner outfield spots. He’s also a .291 career hitter and, with the Nationals bringing in Brian Dozier to start at second base, will be a needed right-handed pinch-hitting option.
“He wants to be on the field. He wants to be with the guys. He doesn’t want to be doing his own thing. He made it very clear,” Martinez said. “So I said, ‘That’s great, but I’m definitely going to make sure you have your days where we limit you and hold you back a little bit, because the biggest thing is getting ready for [the season opener] March 28th.’ ”
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