The Washington Nationals have performed much better this Spring Training than last year, but several areas of concern shouldn’t be overlooked.
There’s been a night and day difference between the 2018 and 2019 Washington Nationals Spring Training seasons. Having attended more than ten games each year, the team’s superior focus and performance this spring are apparent.
Before an upcoming look at the many reasons to be optimistic about this year’s Nationals, let’s analyze some areas of concern for manager Davey Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo as the Nats prepare to leave West Palm Beach for Washington.
The number one goal in any Spring Training is staying healthy. While the Nationals are on the verge of escaping Florida without losing any core players, injuries to one likely starter (Michael A. Taylor), a key bench roleplayer (Howie Kendrick) and two bullpen weapons (Koda Glover and Justin Miller) undoubtedly create challenges.
Miller has returned from his lower back injury but struggled in his most recent appearance. Taylor resumed baseball activities after spraining his knee and hip, but will still miss “significant” time, according to Martinez. Kendrick is on the mend after straining his hamstring, but at 35, a more extended recovery period makes an Opening Day return less likely. Glover, whom the Nationals hoped was finally healthy, remains shut down with a forearm strain.
On the bright side, Taylor’s injury gives the electric Victor Robles his chance to start in center field, while some combination of Andrew Stevenson and Adrian Sanchez should temporarily fill in for Kendrick unless the Nats bring back likable outfielder Denard Span. Miller should be on the Opening Day roster, while the Nats probably have enough depth to absorb Glover’s latest injury.
Sean Doolittle is coming off a nightmarish Saturday outing against the St. Louis Cardinals, during which he blew a save and surrendered a shocking five earned runs on four hits, including a game-winning three-run homer.
Overreacting to one bad March outing is never a good idea, but Doolittle’s reduced velocity is nevertheless troubling. Doolittle’s fastball “fluctuated between 89-92 mph” on Saturday, according to MASN, and plummeted to 87 mph on the pitch that was subsequently launched over the left field wall.
Doolittle says his arm feels “fine” and had retired 12 of 13 spring hitters before Saturday’s implosion. Still, it’s impossible not to wonder if Doolittle’s most effective role would be as a setup man dominating the NL East’s many dangerous left-handed hitters. All it would take is the Nationals winning the seemingly endless Craig Kimbrel sweepstakes.
Zimmerman’s Slow Start
Ryan Zimmerman is no fan of Spring Training, as 2018’s “where’s Ryan?” saga underscored. The 34-year-old career Washington Nationals infielder has earned the right to express that opinion, but at the same time, Zimmerman has been undeniably quiet at the plate this spring.
So far, Zimmerman has just two extra-base hits in 21 spring at-bats. While he’s been making contact, most have been of the weaker variety. Bringing back Matt Adams as the beloved first baseman’s backup should help lessen worries about Zimmerman’s bat, but as Ross Shinberg recently argued, perhaps Adams should have an even more significant role.
In all, the positives outweigh the negatives this spring, especially after Martinez wisely decided to disinvite those infamous camels. Still, if the Washington Nationals want to return to the top of a vastly improved NL East, they will heed these warning signs sooner rather than later.