It’s finally here. We had to wait an extra day (and we’re not looking at the forecast for this afternoon), but the Washington Nationals’ 2018 campaign is finally starting today and it’s just in time because we were getting tired of waiting for games that count.
Also we miss watching Max Scherzer pitch, Stephen Strasburg throw filth, Bryce Harper mash, Trea Turner run, and we want to see Davey Martinez start managering it up... that’s totally a word, what?
In anticipation of the season opener, we gathered around the virtual roundtable to talk all things Nationals.
Patrick Reddington - Editor in Chief, FBB (aka the guy asking the questions).
Matt Weyrich - FBB writer, opinion columnist, D.C. sports enthusiast
Will Kubzansky - Muckraker, trouble maker, wire tapper
Patrick Reddington (PR): So, Miguel Montero huh? Was expecting to see Pedro Severino share time with Matt Wieters, but given the history between Montero and Mike Rizzo and Dave Martinez I’m not completely surprised. Thoughts on Montero? Will he last? Will the Nationals stick with their stated plan to cut Weiters back to 90-ish starts?
Matt Weyrich (MW): Montero hasn’t been an above-average hitter over the course of a full season since 2012, so anyone expecting him to be anything but a serviceable backup to Wieters will be quickly disappointed. I don’t really buy into the best-shape-of-his-life narrative (OK, maybe for Kyle Schwarber, but that’s I promise that’s it), but simple statistics will tell you that Wieters will at least somewhat regress toward his old self. Montero will probably play better than Jose Lobaton did last season, but he won’t be a difference maker on this team and could be replaced by Severino if [Severino] gets off to a hot enough start in AAA.
Will Kubzansky (WK): Miguel Montero is Jose Lobaton with a little more pop and maybe slightly better behind-the-plate defense and pitch calling, though it all evens out when you consider his arm (or lack thereof). I think he’ll have one or two nice moments for the team, but I certainly wouldn’t expect him to do as well or to pick up the cult-like following that Jose Lobaton earned up until some time in the eighth inning of Game 5 (2017 edition). All of which is to say, for a backup, he’s perfectly reasonable, but it does send some signals that Pedro Severino, who has been “on the cusp” and “this close” for however long, probably isn’t going to be a Major League regular. In regards to Wieters, I think the Nats will cut even further back on his big-league starts around July, because I don’t think the starting catcher for the postseason is on the team unless Wieters really shapes up. Realmuto with another half-year gone probably will cost a little less than three full seasons of him, and other catchers will emerge that the Nats will inevitably target. I’d be very surprised to see Wieters behind the dish come October.
PR: Trevor Gott had just one unearned run score while he was on the mound this Spring. I know, I know, don’t trust Grapefruit League stats, we haven’t looked in depth at who he faced, but he impressed and is on the Opening Day roster. Surprised? Think he’ll stick?
MW: As impressive as his Spring Training stats are, Gott is really turning heads with his revamped slider that adds a legitimate second pitch to his arsenal. His fastball averages 95 mph and will probably still be his go-to pitch, but Gott could prove to be a serious bullpen weapon if he’s able to incorporate both pitches effectively. He needs to work quickly, though. When Joaquin Benoit and Koda Glover inevitably return from their respective injuries, Gott will be one of the first candidates to be sent back down to the minors.
WK: Trevor Gott, for a long time now, has had ‘the stuff.’ His fastball definitely has always had the velocity to be a middle-late-ish innings guy, but this spring, it would seem his location and his secondary stuff has finally caught up to his fastball. Obviously, there’s the caveat of Spring Training — Blake Treinen, for instance, had a 0.00 ERA last March —coincidentally until the very day Dusty Baker named him the closer — but Gott hasn’t always been so successful at this time of year, so it’s certainly a step in the right direction. I think that he’s probably very confident in himself right now — people have been questioning him as a return for Yunel Escobar (hey, remember when that was a thing?) essentially since the day of the trade, but the Nats typically scout talent well. He could definitely stick.
PR: Dave Martinez’s first Spring Training featured a Circle of Trust, Hump Day camels, Ryan Zimmerman taking most of his at bats in minor league games, etc.. Thoughts on what you heard from West Palm Beach and initial impressions of Martinez?
WK: If Martinez wants to let Zimmerman do what Zimmerman wants to do, then so be it. But I find it impossible to believe that Zimmerman—seasoned vet of umpteen years—really thinks the best way for him to get ready for MLB pitching is to see stuff below hitting speed that’s not akin to what he’ll see in the Majors. If he really thinks that’s what’s best for him, then fine, but I really won’t believe something’s not up until he steps on the field on Friday.
In regards to camels, those are potentially great. The Nats have either gone all-in on the expectations (see: “World Series or Bust,” or “Where’s my ring?”) before promptly proceeding to spontaneously combust after Opening Day. The years they’ve been more nonchalant about it simply meant that they waited until October to completely implode. Letting the team feel the pressure, but letting the pressure motivate the team, instead of being the driving force of the entire season, seems like the right balance. Then again, the players in the clubhouse could think the complete opposite, that they’re being driven entirely by the pressure and it’s horrible. All of which is to say, it doesn’t matter what any of us think because we’re not in that clubhouse day-to-day and we don’t get to enjoy/have to deal with it. If the team is actually ‘relaxed but focused,’ as every Martinez profile piece seems to have been saying since February, then I’m all for it.
MW: Davey Johnson was too off-the-cuff. Matt Williams was too serious. Dusty Baker didn’t use advanced statistics too much. Martinez appears to be everything his predecessors weren’t: a player’s manager who knows how to handle the media and relies on sabermetrics to make managerial decisions. Sure, we’re hearing things along the lines of, “this team is too relaxed.” But I’d rather have that than a group of players who refuse to address their inability to get over the postseason hump or have no sense of humor.
PR: Bryce Harper... are we allowed to talk about it? Nationals fans seem to want to just enjoy Harp while he’s here (though I’m still not convinced he’ll leave next winter), and he told reporters he won’t discuss anything beyond 2018. Was that the right approach for him? If you had to guess now (which you do since I’m asking), will he stay or go next winter?
MW: Harper is taking the right approach here, but it’s not like he can say much more anyway. He’s a smart enough guy to not lead fans on by saying he’s a “National for life” or anything like that. I think he hits the road for greener pastures (a.k.a. more money), but the Nats will be just fine with Victor Robles taking over center field full time in 2019.
WK: Bryce Harper is a phenomenal ballplayer. Bryce Harper is, in many ways, a generational talent. Bryce Harper also really seems to enjoy the spotlight. Yes, not being asked questions about what’s next probably takes a burden off his shoulders in some way or another, — but don’t think that his C.J. Cregg-style announcement at the very beginning of his first press conference of the year wasn’t an extension of Harper’s love for a little flare here and there. And I only bring this up because Bryce knows that reporters from the New York Post, from the Boston media, from Chicago, from L.A., weren’t at that conference and technically can pretend they didn’t hear about his announcement. It would be underselling Bryce Harper’s intellect to think he didn’t know this and didn’t know that when he goes to the Bronx, to L.A., when the Red Sox come to town this year, he’ll be bombarded with questions about 2019. So, from the standpoint of keeping the D.C. media relatively quiet and giving himself a peaceful Spring Training, it mainly worked. For the rest of the season, it seems doubtful that it’ll hold over.
However, it would be absurd to think the Nationals will be this good next year — so if Bryce really did just want to focus on this year, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Regarding where he ends up next year, I think we’re seeing a consistent underselling of the Nats’ relationship with Scott Boras. If Ted Lerner wants Bryce Harper in D.C., then Boras will sit down with him and most likely make it work.
PR: Biggest concerns? Daniel Murphy’s knee? Ryan Zimmerman’s approach to Spring Training at bats? Starting depth? Other? What are you worried about going into the season?
WK: I mentioned my problems/doubts with the Zimmerman approach earlier, but for me, the middle of the bullpen is what raises the alarm bells. The back end looks great, for the first time in forever (though another arm wouldn’t hurt just from the standpoint of having some immunity to injury), but there’s not really one proven arm in the middle. Sammy Solis will be good. Trevor Gott has promise. There’s no way Shawn Kelley can be worse. Joaquin Benoit and Koda Glover are currently in limbo. But “good,” “promise,” “can’t be worse,” and “limbo” aren’t exactly inspiring words when it comes to a team that’s supposed to contend for a championship.
MW: Daniel Murphy hasn’t played less than 130 games in a season since 2011, so I’m not too concerned about him staying healthy. I am, however, worried about Trea Turner. A wrist injury can be problematic for a base stealer who typically slides headfirst and Turner plays with that hair-on-fire approach to the game. His health is vital to the top of the lineup and if Adam Eaton’s knee isn’t 100 percent after his ACL injury, the Nats’ offense could be in trouble.
PR: Biggest surprise of the Spring for you?
MW: I thought Erick Fedde was going to get a bigger shot at the No. 5 spot in the rotation. He finished the spring with a 2.45 ERA in 14.2 innings, while A.J. Cole had a 4.85 ERA in 13 innings of work. While the small sample size certainly doesn’t make Fedde the better pitcher than Cole, it seems almost predetermined that he’d start the year in AAA. Cole certainly deserves a shot and is out of options, I just thought the top pitching prospect in the organization would get a little more consideration.
WK: That Koda Glover somehow managed to injure himself again. I really, really thought he learned after the rotator cuff thing, but then when he came to Spring Training having overworked himself in the offseason, it was like watching the same thing on instant replay again and again and again. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.