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Slowly, surely, the Nationals keep moving past 2019 and its aftermath

Manager Dave Martinez and the Nationals are set to face the Atlanta Braves on Opening Day. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
6 min

The large posters on the side of the parking garage, the ones towering over the center field gates at Nationals Park, often tell the story of the Washington Nationals. In past years, they featured Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Patrick Corbin, among many other members of contending clubs. This spring? Stephen Strasburg, Josiah Gray, CJ Abrams, Luis García and Keibert Ruiz, plus a banner recognizing the original season-plan holders from 2005.

There’s still a mix of the past, present and future here, a balance the Nationals have juggled since 2019. They are proud of the title they won less than four years ago. They have also moved on from it — at least mostly — after trading Scherzer, Trea Turner, Daniel Hudson and Yan Gomes in 2021, then Soto to the San Diego Padres last summer.

They didn’t rush to call starter Aníbal Sánchez after Cade Cavalli suffered an elbow injury that required season-ending surgery this month. Instead, they will replace Cavalli with Chad Kuhl, a 30-year-old who arrived in camp on a nonroster deal. Over the weekend, Manager Dave Martinez confirmed that Matt Adams, a first baseman on the 2019 squad, will not make the Opening Day roster after fighting for a spot in spring training. Neither will Paolo Espino, a pitcher who debuted for the Nationals in September 2020, when they were desperately trying to keep a competitive window open, and had been with the club ever since.

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But reminders of the past do linger. One is that poster for Strasburg, who remains on a seven-year, $245 million contract — a deal signed after he won World Series MVP — but may never pitch competitively again. Another is Corbin, a World Series hero turned ineffective starter, pitching the season opener against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park on Thursday. And another is Sean Doolittle, who, at 36, is back with Washington but will begin the year on the minor league injured list.

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After the title, amid an ongoing rebuild, ripping off the Band-Aid has felt more like a very slow peel. The coming season, though, promises to hold more signs of the future than the past. Last Opening Day, Alcides Escobar started at shortstop, César Hernández at second and Maikel Franco at third, which showed the Nationals in limbo between what they were and what they ultimately want to be. Those spots will be filled Thursday by Abrams, García and the newly acquired Jeimer Candelario, respectively.

“We got to remember they’re still young, so they’re going to make some mistakes,” Martinez said toward the end of spring training. “We understand that, but our job is to teach them when they make them. And hopefully they don’t make as many as they have before.”

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The decisions with Adams, 34, and Espino, 36, were emotional for Martinez. They also don’t guarantee neither player will appear for the team in 2023. Adams plans to report to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings if no other club reaches out. Espino will start for Rochester and is still on the 40-man roster, meaning he could be the first pitcher called in case of injury.

Adams, who hasn’t appeared in the majors since 2021, spent part of last year in independent ball. Espino, conversely, has made 77 appearances for Washington in the past two years, doing everything he was asked and more. But Espino was edged out by right-handed pitcher Thaddeus Ward, who has more upside and a higher chance of contributing beyond this year. Michael Chavis earned the final bench spot over Adams, with Martinez wanting a versatile defender who could pinch-run late in games. According to Statcast, Chavis, 27 and a former first-round pick by the Boston Red Sox, was in the 89th percentile in sprint speed in 2022.

The Nationals have also signed utility man Chad Pinder to a minor league deal, a person familiar with the situation confirmed Monday. Pinder, 30, became a free agent after he did not make the Cincinnati Reds’ Opening Day roster. He spent his first seven seasons with the Oakland Athletics, playing left field (158 starts), right field (104), second base (62), shortstop (28), third base (20), center field (seven) and first base (four). As of Monday afternoon, the expectation was that he will start the year in Rochester.

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“It’s tough to hear, especially coming in and doing everything that I possibly could to put myself in the position to possibly have my name called to be on the roster,” said Adams, who finished spring training with an .850 OPS in 40 at-bats. “I totally understand. I can walk away with my head held high and very proud of the way that I came in and handled myself, the way I went about my business, the teammate that I was and all the knowledge that I gave to the younger guys. That was a blast.”

“I did a good job in spring, but at the same time, I have [minor league] options,” said Espino, who chose not to pitch for Panama in the World Baseball Classic to boost his chances of making the Opening Day roster. “I know most of them don’t have options, so it’s just part of the game, part of baseball.”

At the winter meetings in December, the Nationals took Ward with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft because they saw him as a starter or long reliever down the line. And because Ward was a Rule 5 selection, Washington had a consequential choice: Carry him on the Opening Day roster or place him on waivers, where he would be available to the other 29 clubs and then offered back to the Red Sox if other clubs pass.

Ward is an example, then, of valuing the future more than the present or past. He may be a better multi-inning relief option than Espino in the short term. In the bigger picture, he could be around when the Nationals are trying to compete again, and Espino almost certainly won’t be. Like they have since Washington blew up the roster in 2021, Martinez, his staff and General Manager Mike Rizzo will have to make these types of decisions every day.

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Does it make sense for Corey Dickerson to get more at-bats than Alex Call in left field? Once Carter Kieboom fully recovers from Tommy John surgery, how much should he and Candelario, signed to a one-year deal, share reps at third? And more than anything, when will it be time to rip the Band-Aid some more, to squint hard at the next wave of prospects and assign them lockers at Nationals Park?

The clock is already ticking toward the rebuild’s next phase.

Andrew Golden contributed to this report.