If they can stay healthy and focus on fundamentals, the 2019 Washington Nationals might be ready to accomplish some extraordinary things.
Something was in the air all spring for the Washington Nationals. They looked focused, relaxed and happy to be around each other. The vibe in West Palm Beach was radically different from 2018 when the Nats ultimately became baseball’s most disappointing team.
Having attended 14 Spring Training games this year (the Nats went 9-3-2 in those games, by the way), something special is brewing for these Washington Nationals. The keys to making the upcoming season a great one will be staying healthy and focusing on fundamentals, which proved (along with a new manager) to be the team’s Achilles heel in 2018.
With the team’s biggest concerns out of the way, let’s look at the biggest reasons for optimism as the countdown to Opening Day at Nationals Park continues.
No NL East rival, including the New York Mets, can match the Washington Nationals starting rotation on paper. Adding the best available free agent starter, Patrick Corbin, alongside future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg gives the Nats a 1-2-3 punch that, if healthy, could be baseball’s best.
Atlanta, which will rely on several unproven starting pitchers after a rash of injuries, might have made two of the NL East’s biggest off-season mistakes by letting Sanchez and catcher Kurt Suzuki end up in Washington. General manager Mike Rizzo deserves credit for stealing away the battery mates and making considerable upgrades to the starting staff and overall roster.
Juan Soto deserves his own category after a torrid spring that was eclipsed only by a fantastic rookie year. Now 20 (yes, that’s really his age, despite infamously dumb comments by a recently demoted Braves announcer), Soto’s approach at the plate continues to resemble a ten-year veteran. He’s a National League MVP candidate this season and for many years to come.
Soto’s emergence lessens the sting of losing Bryce Harper, although the Nationals would have preferred Harper not sign with the Philadelphia Phillies. Having seen both sluggers up close in the earliest stages of in their careers, it’s possible that Soto will wind up being the better player.
A healthy Adam Eaton could also ease the pain of losing Harper. One the first breaths of fresh air this spring was watching Eaton round the bases after struggling to walk, let alone run, at the same time last year. If Eaton, who will lead off, can incorporate speed in his game as he did with the Chicago White Sox, look out.
If the Nationals don’t land Craig Kimbrel, the bullpen’s overall effectiveness might depend on Trevor Rosenthal. A former All-Star closer for the St. Louis Cardinals, Rosenthal had a dominant early spring before some relatively minor command issues popped up in the latter part of camp.
Still, Rosenthal managed to hit 102 mph in South Florida with his surgically-repaired arm. With fellow setup man Kyle Barraclough struggling at times this spring, Rosenthal is the sturdy bridge the Nats need to their All-Star closer, Sean Doolittle.
Nobody was tougher than yours truly last year on new Washington Nationals manager Davey Martinez. After watching Martinez all spring, including at a live 106.7 radio broadcast on March 11, the young manager seems to have learned some of the lessons from 2018’s botched spring training, which was marred by horrible defense, bad baserunning and, oh yes, camels.
With 2018 under his belt, Martinez now knows the importance of working on fundamentals in Spring Training, along with forcing even the most respected veterans to prepare for a given season adequately. The biggest question is whether Martinez begins using the bunt and hit-and-run more often to avoid stranding runners, along with improving his bullpen management skills.
If you’re a Nats fan, hope this team avoids significant injuries and has the opportunity to reach its full potential. If the stars align, this could be the most surprising, special season for the Washington Nationals since 2012.
And it could be even better.