A week ago, we were waiting and wondering and worrying about the 2022 baseball season, and now here we are.
With the 99-day lockout in the rear-view mirror, Spring Training is open in West Palm Beach, FL, players are working out, and the Nationals have a new veteran free-agent superstar.
Baseball is back!
“This day couldn’t come fast enough for me,” Manager Davey Martinez told reporters at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
“The hardest thing was not being able to communicate with the guys all winter.”
The first day of Spring Training saw not only the usual optimism and excitement to get back to work, but the first major signings in the build-out of the 2022 roster, slugger Nelson Cruz and a passel of other veterans with postseason experience.
Cruz, who will turn 42 this season, has 449 career home runs, including 32 last season, when a deadline trade took him from Minnesota to postseason-bound Tampa. General manager Mike Rizzo also signed right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who has been to the postseason twice with Toronto. Veteran utility infielder Ehire Adrianza should receive a World Series ring when the Nats vist Atlanta this season.
The Nats also brought in a couple other veterans with World Series rings: pinch hitter extraordinaire Gerardo Parra and right-hander Aníbal Sánchez. The two Venezuelan veterans not only made clutch plays for the Nationals through the 2019 season and postseason, they also lit up the dugout with a “dance party” after every home run, while fan favorite Parra’s “Baby Shark” walk-up music ignited the crowd.
These are the crucial first steps in digging the organization out of the two-year ditch it has run into since winning the 2019 World Series, with a disastrous COVID-shortened 2020 season and a 2021 campaign that came apart at the trade deadline. Now, after a decade of contending annually in the National League as a veteran ballclub, the Nationals start 2022 actively rebuilding.
With the worst record in the NL East since the Nats’ electric postseason run, Rizzo wants that championship feeling back, although just one starting position player, Juan Soto, remains from the team that beat Houston some 28 months ago.
In assessing a ballclub he ripped apart and rebuilt in mid-season last year, Rizzo was no less direct than usual in naming 23-year-old superstar Soto as his centerpiece.
“To me, this is Juan Soto’s team. He’s the face of the team, the face of the franchise,” Rizzo told reporters. “He might be the face of Major League Baseball.”
And what about a long-term contract for the two-time Silver Slugger winner and 2020 National League batting champion, who’s eligible for free agency in three seasons?
“We’re going to attack a deal with Juan Soto,” said Rizzo, reiterating the young superstar’s leadership.
Soto’s agent, Scott Boras, reportedly rejected a 13-year, $350 million offer before the lockout began in December, but Rizzo insists it’s still early.
“We made an offer and all of a sudden the lockout happened, and we didn’t have much dialogue after that, but our side has plans to pick it up very soon. He’s our No. 1 priority.”
After that, the to-do list going into Spring Training would seem to include finding a designated hitter and filling out a starting rotation with several uncertain spots.
Rizzo can check designated hitter off that list now after playing coy with reporters in his Sunday remarks.
“I think that there’s a flexibility here that we have that we could bring in a DH-only type, or kind of have a hybrid at that you can have an everyday player that plays a position, and then his days off would be as a DH,” he said.
There’s no doubt where right-handed slugging Cruz lands on that spectrum. Cruz has averaged 39 home runs over his 17 seasons, making him the perfect cleanup hitter to protect Soto. With his career total of 449 homers, and if the Nats don’t flip him for more prospects, a season anywhere close to par could make Cruz a big draw in 2023 as he nears 500, a Hall of Fame milestone.
Cruz is also quite durable, playing in at least 140 games in every full season except one since serving a 50-game suspension in 2013 for violating baseball’s substance abuse policy. That was when he hit 41 homers in 2019 in 120 games for AL Central champion Minnesota.
And despite his age, teams have not been hesitant to bid for Cruz’s services since 2013, despite the full-season suspension he would incur with another violation.
As for the rotation, the only certainty is a major uncertainty: Stephen Strasburg.
The 33-year-old right-hander’s career has been as enigmatic as his last three seasons. In 2019, the 2009 first overall draft pick carried the team to the World Series title with a 1.98 ERA over 36 1⁄3 historic postseason innings, after leading the league with 18 wins and 209 innings pitched. Then a pitcher with half of his 12 seasons shortened by injuries was shut down after just two starts in 2020 and five in 2021.
“He wants to attack Spring Training as if it was just a normal Spring Training,” said Martinez.
“He’s throwing a live BP on Tuesday, so I’m looking forward to watching that and then we’ll go from there.”
After lefty Patrick Corbin, who is 11-21 with a 5.50 ERA since his stellar postseason relief turns in 2019, is Joe Ross, who had a setback when he had bone chips removed from his throwing elbow this month and will miss the season opener.
“We always thought that we were going to take a slow pace with Joe because of the UCL issues that he had [last season],” Rizzo said. “But I think that we’re going to have to rely on our depth a little bit more now, and hopefully Joe, when Joe is ready, he can be part of that depth and help us out more towards the back end than the beginning of the season.”
Parra and Sánchez are among the other veterans who are hoping to energize the clubhouse like they did in 2019, and also help the young players learn to contend every year.
“We’ve been through the process before,” said Rizzo. “We feel that we have a good blueprint of getting us back to that championship form in the near future.”
Even looking up in the standings at defending World Series champion Atlanta, and improved teams in New York, Philadelphia, and Miami, Rizzo isn’t ready to concede another season in the cellar.
“We’re about winning games this year, and we’re going to be quietly plugging away to win each and every game we have, and there’s 12 playoff teams, and we want to be one of them,” he said.
“In regards to the championship window, it could start at any time, and we’re making moves towards that end, but we’re still trying to win every baseball game we play.”
These are the days when the Nationals can be optimistic, grooming starters, signing superstars, and dreaming of a season that seemed so elusive just a week ago.
With three weeks of Spring Training and a full season on tap, there will be plenty of time to see where the rebuilding Nationals are headed.