WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — At times, an entire baseball organization needs a swift kick in the head before it is willing to accept the need for radical change, in both players and approach.
A dismal, almost mortifying 2018 season may have done that for the Nationals. This spring I’ve heard variations of the phrase “82 wins will do that to you” from General Manager Mike Rizzo, Manager Dave Martinez and vets Max Scherzer, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Zimmerman. The Nats regard that 82-80 record as an MLB felony conviction.
That’s why free agents Patrick Corbin, Brian Dozier, Anibal Sanchez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kurt Suzuki and Tony Sipp were bought. That’s why Yan Gomes and Kyle Barraclough came in trades. That’s why execs and players chat about what a fine, all-in fit free agent Craig Kimbrel would be for this team.
This aggressive willingness to change is why electric five-tool rookie Victor Robles, with a .472 on-base percentage, seven walks and five steals here, surely will start in center field. If anything, he’s exceeding his hype so far.
It’s why Rizzo says of buzz-of-camp Carter Kieboom, 21, who homered twice off Justin Verlander on Tuesday, “He is a middle-of-the-lineup, instant-impact hitting middle infielder.” That’s scout talk for, “Wow.”
“We’ve shown that when you are ready to play in the big leagues, we are not afraid to bring you up. We’ve done it with guys younger than him,” Rizzo added of Kieboom. “He’ll let us know, and we’ll act accordingly.”
That need for change is why each Nats player met separately with Martinez after last season to be told exactly what to do all winter, so he’d be ready for a more rigorous, fundamentals-first camp — from the first day.
“By Feb. 5 [a week before reporting date], there were already 15 players here,” Martinez said. “I think it had a lot to do with our conversations at the end of last year: ‘This is what we expect from you coming into camp.’
“Sore arms, sore feet, sore backs — we didn’t have that this year.”
That’s why Martinez, after a first-day “cabbage race,” has curtailed his Joe Maddon-imitation team-bonding stunts.
“Last year we did a lot of things [like] camels — infamously, I guess, at this point,” Doolittle said.
Dromedaries, designated for assignment.
“Guy are going about their business,” Doolittle said. “We recognize the challenge that the NL East will be.”
After seven years of exceptional basic talent but zero postseason series wins, the Nats wondered whether their clubhouse makeup was tough and accountable enough. Did they need more hard-nosed, old-school leaders and less of a star system?
“It’s going to be exciting to see this group jell together. We have a lot of different types of leaders — 10 real guys who are leaders,” Rizzo said.
Aside from a few Martinez rules, this team should be ashamed if it doesn’t police itself. Gomes is known for “taking ownership” of the results of his starting pitchers, such as the staff in Cleveland that raved about him, especially Corey Kluber. Suzuki helped Sanchez discover a pitch-selection-and-sequencing fountain of youth last year.
Martinez calls Sanchez his most pleasant experience of the spring. Scherzer lobbied for his ex-Detroit Tigers teammate as “a clubhouse glue guy.”
“I try to beat Sanchez to the ballpark, and I can’t. And I get here early,” said Martinez, who often rises at 5:15 a.m. “He’s already on the treadmill.”
It’s hard to know when general comments by the Nats have a subtext — whether it’s the flaws in fundamentals of the departed Bryce Harper or the lax mood of camp in 2018 or a dearth of leaders when hard times arrived. After Howie Kendrick was lost for the year, Scherzer, Adam Eaton and, to a degree, Zimmerman were almost the only demanding adult voices. Now, in different tones, add Dozier, Sanchez, Gomes, Suzuki and a more assertive Anthony Rendon.
“We’re in a better spot this spring,” Matt Adams said. “The vibe is entirely different. We have each other’s back. Everybody came in hungry and fired up.”
“We have a bunch of professionals who are paying attention to details, not overlooking them because it’s spring training,” Trea Turner said.
That attitude extends to the exodus of Harper. Few here seem to care. Good guy, but goodbye.
If the Nats thought he was essential to their future, they would have made him an astronomical first offer. They didn’t, because that’s not what they believed. If Harper had wanted to stay very badly, he would have negotiated off the Nats’ original 10-year, $300 million offer, dragged back a lot of the $100 million that was deferred money — and would be here now.
Less than two weeks before Opening Day, I’m laying this fuss to rest. For me, both the Nats and Harper liked and appreciated each other a lot. But not enough — on either side — that a deal felt imperative. A renewal of vows felt optional to each. That’s not how monster deals get done.
Harper got a better guaranteed deal in Philly — and a “record” — but, all things considered, not a great deal better.
My sense is that no one did anybody wrong. Nobody’s mad. But, man, those 19 Phillies-Nats games are going to be good theater.
What’s most remarkable, perhaps, is that the Nats could see — two years ago — that they were probably going to lose Daniel Murphy (second in 2016 MVP voting), Gio Gonzalez, Matt Wieters, Ryan Madson, probably Harper and others — yet they have constructed a roster with no obvious weakness except a lack of one more quality relief arm, such as a David Robertson, Adam Ottavino or Joe Kelly, who all signed for a manageable $24 million to $27 million.
“We lost a significant number of players . . . [but] our plan has come to fruition as we foresaw,” Rizzo said. Has he been watching the movie “Churchill?”
“Our so-called window is wide open for the foreseeable future,” Rizzo added. “The one-, three- and five-year plans are in really good shape.”
Last Sunday, Kieboom missed a two-homer night when his second blast was knocked down at the wall by a stiff wind. In his next game, he hit two Verlander fastballs through an even stronger wind, both with a trajectory and “crash” that is probably why scouts project him, someday, to hit 30 homers.
That same evening, 18-year-old Luis Garcia, an elite shortstop prospect, had three hits and a stolen base to end his spring in big league camp hitting .316.
The old Nats of 2012-18, who reintroduced Washington to high-level winning baseball for the first time since the 1930s, gradually have been scattered by age, trades and free agency. Of the 43 players who appeared on the 98-win 2012 team, only Stephen Strasburg and Zimmerman, plus the recently returned Suzuki, are still here.
You’d think that would foretell the end of an era. From everything on display here at spring training, that appears to be dramatically incorrect.