Washington Nationals' pitchers and catchers (and a few early-arriving position players) have started rolling into Viera, Florida's Space Coast Stadium and the Nationals' Spring Training facilities this week.
Embattled closer Jonathan Papelbon reportedly arrived today and is set to speak with reporters for the first time since he was suspended for the late-season hit-by-pitch on Manny Machado and his role in the dugout altercation with NL MVP Bryce Harper. [ed. note - "More on that below."]
Dusty Baker spoke to reporters this afternoon too...
In an MLB Network Radio interview on Thursday morning, GM Mike Rizzo talked about how well he and the Nationals' new skipper are communicating so far as they begin in earnest to prepare for the 2016 campaign.
"We talk all the time," Rizzo said. "It's a joy to talk to him. He's a baseball guy through and [through] and has a lot of other interests, knows everybody in the world, and everybody loves the man. He's got great insights on the game. He sees things that a lot of people don't see within the game and he's got a great demeanor about him and an easy man to communicate with and talk to."
Rizzo also discussed the changes to the roster made over the winter as the Nationals attempted to rebuild the bullpen, get a little more left-handed and add some contact bats to the lineup.
"After you look back on the season that you had prior, you kind of look at what holes you had on the roster and how to improve yourselves and make yourselves better," he explained.
"We all have parameters that we have to adhere to, be it payroll-wise and that type of thing. We thought that the last year or so we became kind of an imbalanced lineup. Very right-handed oriented, although a lot of our players hit both righties and lefties well, we felt that a more balanced lineup will assist us and kind of a different lineup. More contact orientated. With [Ben] Revere and [Daniel] Murphy you have two of the more contact-orientated [hitters] maybe in the National League that are going to hit at the top of the lineup and kind of different, gritty type of hitters that really work counts and put the bat on the ball and are guys that when we played against them for all those years were tough outs for us.
"So we really went for some balance in the lineup. We wanted to be faster, more athletic and we think we've achieved that."
As for the changes in the bullpen? Drew Storen is no longer a National. Craig Stammen is gone. No more veteran lefty Matt Thornton. Craig Stammen, a staple for the Nationals' bullpen for years is gone.
Replacing those relievers are the likes of Shawn Kelley, Yusmeiro Petit, Oliver Perez and Trevor Gott.
"Bullpen-wise," Rizzo said, "we went with guys who have pitched leverage innings in the past and have had some success and guys that have some swing and miss stuff... to make us leaner and much longer lineup with the balance part and a much deeper bullpen with so many arms that we acquired free agent-wise and via trades."
Can the Nationals put the disappointment of the 2016 campaign behind them? It got off to a good start today when Papelbon met with reporters and apologized to everyone, Nationals fans included, for his actions last season:
Papelbon spoke 12 minutes, very contrite. Apologized to Harper, teammates, fans.— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) February 19, 2016
More quotes coming, but Papelbon said repeatedly he wants to apologize to fans. Said he wants them to see he just wants to bring title to DC— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) February 19, 2016
Papelbon said the week he was suspended was one of the lowest points of his career.— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) February 19, 2016
Papelbon: "I was in the wrong. I've had a lot of time to think about that. ... Sometimes in life, good things can come from bad situations."— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) February 19, 2016
Jonathan Papelbon: "I was in the wrong." pic.twitter.com/TDqg8gK3vZ— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) February 19, 2016
We'll hopefully have some quotes on Baker's conversation with reporters, Papelbon's talk with the press and more later this afternoon...