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Five Trends to Watch During Washington Nationals Spring Training

MacKenzie Gore Will Start For The Nationals Today

Identifying storylines that matter during Spring Training isn’t easy. It’s a ramp-up period for players, during which their statistical production isn’t very important.

Yet for some players, performance during Spring Training can make or break their role on the team – or even determine whether they make the roster.

In many ways, that reality holds true this year more than most seasons for the Nationals. Although some players – most of whom are young – are guaranteed roles as everyday contributors, there’s a lot of competition up and down the roster this spring.

If you’re searching for something intriguing during what may otherwise seem like a sluggish period, here are the five uncertain areas I think we’ll learn the most about this spring.

The Starting Rotation

This is an easy one every season, but there’s some added intrigue this year. This season, expect to see new faces aplenty.

Starting pitchers won’t last deep into games in February and March, but we’ll get to clearly see who’s in the running for a rotation spot. There will be instances in which arms outside the top five – for a multitude of reasons - will start games. Sometimes it’s to keep core starters on their scheduled throwing day. Other times, it will be to keep them off the mound against teams they’ll face during the season, particularly divisional opponents.

But even in those situations, the Nationals will turn to players either next-in-line or with bright futures – think top pitching prospects like Cade Cavalli or Erick Fedde (yes, that guy) in past springs.

Washington has released its preliminary starting rotation to begin the spring:

  • Today: MacKenzie Gore
  • Sunday: Trevor Williams and Josiah Gray
  • Tuesday: Patrick Corbin

You read that correctly; the Nationals have two Sunday games and Monday off. The plan is for the starters to throw 25-30 pitches before giving way to the bullpen.

Cavalli will presumably be the fifth starter – meaning the fifth to start a game, not necessarily No. 5 in the pecking order. However, there’s a case to be made – even if he starts games during Spring Training – for sending him to Triple-A to begin the season. He’s among Washington’s most important pitchers, and the cupboard is pretty bare, but he’s also only started one game in the big leagues, and it wasn’t a pretty outing.

Nonetheless, seeing who starts games and how they look – by the eye test, not the box score – will at least offer a sense of how the rotation should stack up.

Some of the fun aspects about these few games for the starters are that this will be the first time Gore and Williams pitch in Nationals uniforms, and Gray will be experimenting with a brand new pitch – a cutter.

Third Base

This has been true every year since Anthony Rendon left in free agency, but it bears repeating: the starting spot at the hot corner is uncertain. Much as he was when Rendon departed, Carter Kieboom is still in the mix. He won’t be the front-runner, though. In fact, his odds of making the Opening Day roster in his first year back after Tommy John surgery are in limbo.

In all likelihood, the job belongs to free agent addition Jeimer Candelario. Prior to a rough 2022, the switch-hitting Candelario was a tough out. He hit for a .297 average in 2020 and slugged as many as 19 home runs in a season while in Detroit.

Although it’s uncertain, I’d venture to say he’ll return to being a solid hitter this season – especially with bans on the shift, which impacted him more than many other hitters. The greater uncertainty might surround his defense. He has a burly frame, and advanced metrics have returned inconsistent results from year to year.

There’s a chance that he ends up playing some first base, or even designated hitter. Then again, there’s no one nipping on his heels at third, and Mark Zuckerman of MASN says Candelario has looked smoother than expected in the field.

Aside from Candelario and Kieboom, the Nationals will roster defensive stalwart Ildemaro Vargas and late-blooming prospect Jake Alu, who will split time at a few positions but factor into the mix at third base.

Left Field

If we assume Lane Thomas will continue to start in right field, as was the case last year after Juan Soto was traded, left field is up for grabs. Alex Call drew a large chunk of the reps down the stretch of 2022, racking up an impressive 122 OPS+ (22 percent better than league-average at the plate) in 35 games. The 28-year-old right-hander will compete for the job, but he’ll have competition.

From the left side, the Nationals inked veteran Corey Dickerson to a one-year, $5 million deal this offseason. He’ll likely draw the lion’s share of starts early in the season, but a lackluster 2022 will force him to bounce back if he wants the degree of usage that he’s used to.

Stone Garrett might be the most exciting of the trio fighting for this job. He’s 27 years old and built like an Adonis. During a 27-game cup of coffee in Arizona last year, Garrett collected 12 extra-base hits. The power checks out, considering he’s belted 53 home runs in his 208 upper-minor league games the last two seasons. It’s reportedly shown up in early batting practice this week, too.

The real question at hand this spring will be how these three hit against same-sided pitching. Conventional wisdom suggests that out of the gate, veteran Dickerson will bat against right-handers, with either Call or Garrett against lefties. If anyone amongst this trio shows themselves capable of success outside of those roles, though, don’t be surprised if they run away with an everyday role.

The Bullpen

This is less about the Opening Day configuration and more about the future. Most of the core is firmly established. Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey and Sean Doolittle will almost certainly play key late-inning roles, with contributors like Erasmo Ramirez and Paolo Espino bridging the middle innings.

Pitchers I’d argue are more worth paying attention to are youngsters like Thaddeus Ward, Matt Cronin, Jose Ferrer and Zach Brzykcy. None of them have pitched at the big league level yet, but all of them have likely futures at the game’s highest level – very likely at some point this season.

If nothing else, this is great exposure for those four to a higher level of competition than they’ve seen thus far in their professional baseball careers. If any of them dominate during Spring Training, don’t be shocked if you see them in Washington much sooner rather than later.

The Lineup

I alluded to this in my spring preview, but very little is established as it relates to the batting order. Most of the names are known, with the exceptions being the positions I discussed previously, but the sequence is far from certain.

This lineup doesn’t have an obvious leadoff hitter, nor middle-of-the-order sluggers. There’s a case to be made for throwing CJ Abrams and Luis Garcia to the wolves at the top of the lineup, but Lane Thomas and Corey Dickerson (if he starts) might be safer options.

We all came to love Joey Meneses, but can he really be a featured hitter for a full season? Surely a small sample, .930 OPS season as a 30-year-old rookie can’t be duplicated – can it? Can someone like Candelario or first baseman Dominic Smith bounce back at the plate? Is this the year Keibert Ruiz takes a leap towards All Star status at catcher to help fill that void?

One thing is for sure: Victor Robles will likely stay near or at the bottom of the order on a regular basis.

However this shapes up a month from now, there will be breadcrumbs from Spring Training that lead up to it. Spring lineups aren’t as meaningless as they might seem. There will be some tinkering, as starters won’t all play every day and some players will rise and fall based on how they perform. Still, you’ll at least start to see repetitive segments of the lineup, and those segments will gradually expand until reaching an established 1-through-9 order.

And it all starts today at 1:05 p.m. Who else is as excited as I am?


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Tuesday, 28 March 2023

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