WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In February 2013, when the Washington Nationals first returned to spring training as bona fide division champions, they did so with a few tweaks from the team that won the National League East crown: Denard Span in center field, Dan Haren in the rotation, Rafael Soriano as the closer. They followed their next division title by adding a stunner in Max Scherzer, plus trading for third baseman Yunel Escobar and rebuilding the bullpen.
And that’s been the methodology: tighten one bolt, exchange one belt, but keep the machine mostly together.
“Every year is different,” said Ryan Zimmerman, the piece that has remained the longest.
For the Nationals, though, no season since they became perennial contenders is as different as the one that approaches now. The Nats who open the season Thursday against Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets will have Scherzer, by now a mainstay, on the mound. But around him, so many presents for the fan base to unwrap, discover and explore.
Brian Dozier, late of the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers, will be at second. Victor Robles, speedy and powerful and young, will be in center. Yan Gomes, who once played in the World Series for Cleveland, will catch, except for the days when that nod goes to Kurt Suzuki, who backstopped last year’s National League East champion Atlanta Braves.
When Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are done with their turns in the rotation, they will watch Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez, each from elsewhere. The path to established closer Sean Doolittle will be through Kyle Barraclough and Tony Sipp and Trevor Rosenthal, none of whom have spent any time in the home clubhouse on South Capitol Street.
Bryce Harper’s exit provided the offseason’s most significant story line, and it’ll be difficult to escape. But don’t let it obscure the entrances that followed, because they make up the current team — which has the same goals, but a different feel.
“Everyone wants everyone to say it’s different because Harp isn’t here,” Zimmerman said. “Of course it is. Just like it was different when J-dub [Jayson Werth] wasn’t here [in 2018], just like it’s different that Gio [Gonzalez] isn’t here — or anyone who’s been here six or seven years.
“Obviously he’s different because he’s a little more polarizing figure than most — or anybody. So of course it’s different.”
With his persona and production in Philadelphia, whatever these Nats accomplish — or don’t — will be viewed through the prism of Harper’s absence. Is the clubhouse somehow better? Is the lineup now worse? It’s a dark forest of supposition, and we’re mostly navigating without a flashlight.
Put Harper aside, though, and think both about this team’s goals and the men who will try to reach them. Rarely does a club with such consistent objectives approach a season with such a different makeup. Nats fans who have watched the core here transition from Ian Desmond to Trea Turner, from Harper to Juan Soto, from Jordan Zimmermann to Scherzer, have more to learn about this Nats squad than any of those past seven contenders.
About those objectives: They’re not subtle.
“People around here, they understand the ultimate goal,” said Gomes, acquired in an offseason trade with Cleveland. “It’s not, ‘Let’s just go and have a good season and win more games than last year.’ That’s not even close to what we’re looking for. It’s get in the first round, get in the second round, get to the World Series. There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind here.”
And that’s the new guy. Or, rather, one of the new guys.
Of course, some Nat — be he new or old — could have said something similar in any spring training from 2013 on. Why, just last spring, Scherzer was saying, “We know we’re capable of winning the whole thing.” That has not changed. Nor is it likely to.
Want to annoy General Manager Mike Rizzo or his top lieutenants? Bring up the idea that these Nats have a “window” in which they can win. Even with last year’s 82-80 clunker, only one franchise — the Dodgers — has won more games than Washington since 2012, an average of 91 per year for the Nationals. They have four division titles — and expect another this season.
“We’ve been good for about seven or eight seasons,” Rizzo said. “We plan to be good for the foreseeable future.”
Because this is professional sports in the 21st century, that involves inevitable turnover. So if another division title — and more — is ahead, it will come with different players propping the window open. Remember when the Nats’ “core” could accurately be described as Zimmerman, Strasburg, Harper, Werth, Desmond and Zimmermann? Only Zimmerman and Strasburg remain. So what’s the core now? Anthony Rendon, Adam Eaton, Scherzer, Turner, Soto, Doolittle, Zimmerman and Strasburg, maybe?
But what about the new guys? That’s where the unprecedented assimilation comes in. During this run from 2012, the Nats have never fielded a regular lineup at the start of the season with more than two starting position players different from the year before. This season, there are four — whoever catches, Dozier at second, Soto (who at this time last year was preparing to open the season at low-Class A Hagerstown) and Robles. Never, during this stretch, have the Nats rolled over more than one regular member of the rotation. This year, Corbin and Sánchez replace Gonzalez and Tanner Roark. That’s more than just a lot of innings to replace. It’s a lot of history. Two guys with 354 starts in a Nats uniform walked out the door, replaced by two guys with zilch.
“There’s a lot of turnover, so I guess that explains why there’s a different vibe,” Zimmerman said. “But you’ve kind of just added to the core now, because pretty much all those guys have been in the big leagues for five-plus years. There are just more veterans in that veteran core.”
There are, of course, questions that come with turnover — in part because we just don’t know these guys. Some, such as whether Corbin can duplicate his fine 2018 with Arizona, are serious and weighty, because a six-year, $140 million deal impacts more than just this season. Others, such as whether Dozier can recapture the form that produced an average of 32 homers with an .814 on-base-plus-slugging percentage from 2014 to 2017, would merely advance the current Nats’ agenda.
Either way, the early part of this season represents a clean break for the Nationals, and not just because Harper isn’t here. These are, in a lot of ways, new Nats. The central question remains the same: Can they get a different result?