Nationals: Three Spring Training Storylines To Watch
By Max Rayman
Pitchers and catchers reported earlier today, meaning baseball is finally upon us. The Nationals had an interesting off-season, bringing in a variety of new faces. Gone are Howie Kendrick, Asdrubal Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez, Kurt Suzuki, Brock Holt, Sean Doolittle, and Michael A. Taylor. In their stead are Jon Lester, Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Brad Hand, and Alex Avila. Many of the key components of the Nats World Series roster left, leaving a void that the newcomers will be looking to fill.
With a revamped roster, Spring Training will be the first chance for Nats fans to have a glimpse of the upcoming season. More importantly, Spring Training will be full of storylines to pay attention to. How will the third base situation turn out? Will the team’s big three look like their old selves? Will Bell and Schwarber remember how to hit? Did Washington do enough? Here are three Spring Training storylines Nats fans should key an eye on.
Washington’s former top prospect Carter Kieboom had a disastrous 2020 campaign, hitting .202, with nine RBIs, and an OPS of .556 in 99 at-bats. Known for his offense, Kieboom had previously hit .303, with 16 homers, 79 RBIs, and an OPS of .902 in 494 at-bats at the Triple-A level. Despite plenty of intriguing third-base options on the open market/trade market, Washington decided the youngster is still the guy and hasn’t been fazed by his early growing pains.
Part of Kieboom’s 2020 struggles can be accredited to a groin injury. However, it was recently reported that the injury was more serious than first announced.
Fortunately, Kieboom is reported to be back to 100% and will be looking to prove 2020 was a fluke.
A natural shortstop, Kieboom had to learn third base on the fly and posted five DRS in 2020. With his glove caught up, the organization is hoping his bat will follow suit. Spring Training will allow Kieboom the opportunity to showcase if he can finally get his career on track.
How Will The New Faces Perform?
Tight against the luxury tax, Mike Rizzo decided against splurging. Instead, Rizzo allocated the remaining money, targeting players who were successful in 2019. To fix the offense, Washington traded for Josh Bell and signed Kyle Schwarber, both of whom hit 30+ homers in 2019, but fell off in 2020. Rizzo is hoping a change of scenery mixed with a full Spring Training, will allow for the two sluggers to rebound.
Jon Lester was acquired to be the team’s new fourth starter. No longer the ace he once was, Lester will be leaned on to eat innings. Since 2008 and not counting the 2020 shortened season, Lester has only thrown less than 180 innings once (2019). Unfortunately, he hasn’t had an ERA below 4.00 since 2018. To make matters worse, after posting a 3.53 ERA in 2019, the Nationals starting rotation fell apart in 2020, finishing with an ERA of 5.38. That is a drastic dropoff. Lester finished with a 5.16 ERA in 2020, so if he continues to underperform, the rotation will suffer.
Brad Hand was dynamic in 2020 but has been suffering a loss in velocity over the last two seasons. Brought in to be the new late-inning lefty, Hand will have to continue to adapt to his loss in velocity. If his 2020 season was any indication, this is likely to occur. After all, last season Hand went 2-1, with a 2.05 ERA, 29 strikeouts, and 16 saves.
In an ever increasingly competitive NL East, the new guys will need to have an outstanding spring to silence any questions that dangle over the team’s head.
A First Glimpse At Cade Cavalli
Drafted number 22 overall by Washington in the 2020 draft, Cade Cavalli has yet to make a minor league start. This was due to the 2020 minor league season being canceled due to COVID. Instead, he impressed last year at the Nationals Alternate Site, leading him to steadily rise up the team’s prospect rankings. Now Washington’s number one prospect, Cavalli has earned a Spring Training invite and he has his eyes set on making the Nationals 26 man roster.
Cavalli’s main competition for a spot in the starting rotation is Joe Ross. Ross opted out of the 2020 season and only made nine starts in 2019, to the tune of a 5.48 ERA. Once a vital part of the rotation, Ross underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018 and has yet to demonstrate he is back to his old self. Behind Ross are Erick Fedde and Austin Voth. Both were part of the Nationals 2020 rotation, but neither were able to establish themselves as a vital piece for the future.
For the fanbase, this will be the first real opportunity to see Cavall in action. The team’s top prospect is unlikely to start in the majors and would benefit from time in the minors because he lacks experience. Spring will show the fanbase where the top prospect is on his path to the majors.