Usually, sometime after the first of a new year, two things used to happen: The Nationals announce a list of players signed to minor league contracts who are getting invitations to spring training, and the postal carrier shoves a couple of tax forms in among the bills and junk mail.
Well, looks like the Nats’ list of non-roster invitees will go the way of the tax form booklets, which have all but disappeared now that most of the country files online.
Oh, the Nats will still have some non-roster guys in camp who are trying to make an impression on new manager Matt Williams and his coaching staff while forcing their way into consideration for the opening roster. It’s just that when your team is constructed to contend and bent on showing that last season’s 86-76 mark and second-place finish in the National League East was a disappointment that now serves as motivation, you don’t have a ton of spots to fill - or the need to create non-existent roster battles just to get through six weeks of spring training.
Let’s say you’re a little more focused.
“They’re a little disappointed in how things went last year, especially,” Williams said at the Winter Meetings. “And again, two years ago, winning more games than anyone else and not making it to where they wanted to get to is disappointing. But they’re even more disappointed in what happened last year. They want to make amends for that. They want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. And that’s the players talking, which is great. So you sit there as the manager (and say), ‘Man, these guys are on it.’ They’re ready to go. They are itching to get back and start and all of those things. We’re going to have to do things right next year ... to play well. But they’re looking to get back, which is a really good sign.”
I can recall walking into the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium for full-squad workouts when additional locker stalls had to be set up in the middle of one end to accommodate all the bodies. When catchers had to spread out their equipment to pack for a road game, it created a road block worthy of the Capital Beltway in a rush hour downpour. Guys ate in shifts at a couple of tables. And only the longest-serving veterans or highest-priced players (guys like Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman, Livan Hernandez or Jayson Werth) had empty lockers next to theirs. When you’ve been around for a while, or have a bunch of commas on your paycheck, that’s one of the perks.
A couple of years ago, the home clubhouse was reconfigured. Where the extra lockers once stood is now an entranceway - to the right is the walkway that takes you into the clubhouse, and to the left is where the guys who cook breakfast set up their omelet or pancake station. There is still sufficient locker space, but the need for the extra stalls has gone down while the Nats’ expectations have risen.
Yes, Williams will want some extra bodies in camp. Every spring training needs them - to spell regulars, to push guys who need a little extra motivation, in case of injury. But Williams has already said that his camp will run a little differently than that of Davey Johnson. Those additional players are likely to be in-house candidates, guys in the organization Williams wants to get his eyes on.
He’s already charted out batting practice schedules and the bullpen sessions pitchers will throw. He’s holding weekly conference calls with his coaching staff to make sure everyone’s on the same page - no small detail when, as Williams puts it, “I’m the new dude.” He’s visited Viera to get the lay of the land. And if I read him correctly, he probably walked the quarter-mile between the home clubhouse and the adjacent minor league complex instead of riding a golf cart.
“From early work through the end of the day,” Williams said when he was asked how much of spring training he’d already planned out. “It’s a fun part of that. I believe that if you’re prepared, then things happen organically and naturally for your club. That’s what we plan to do.”
And that means Williams wants to focus more on learning his new ballclub than he does on an endless parade of warm bodies. When needed, those reinforcements will only be in the minor league camp, a short walk away. If he sees a need for a specific role - let’s say an extra middle infielder because he’s going to be wary of wearing down shortstop Ian Desmond, second baseman Anthony Rendon or possible utility man Danny Espinosa - he’ll get someone. That’s probably why D.C. native Emmanuel Burriss, one of the few guys who will be in camp as a non-roster invitee, got the call.
To some of the veterans, spring training drills under Johnson were more country club than hard work. They came in, dressed, got their work in and moved from station to station at a leisurely pace. Williams will run a different kind of camp. It won’t be a my-way-or-the-highway mandate, but he will expect his charges to pay attention, work hard and move on to whatever the next task is.
“It will be rapid-fire, and it will be very short,” he said. “But that’s by design, that we can get our work done as a group and then we can break off into our individual work later in the day or earlier in the morning to get our fineâ€‘tuning done.”
Update: Second baseman Will Rhymes has re-signed with the Nationals, getting a minor league contract with an invitation to major league spring training, according to a Twitter post from Beverly Hills Sports Council, his representatives.
The College of William and Mary alum spent the entire 2013 season at Triple-A Syracuse, where he hit .274 with three homers and 51 RBIs. He had an on-base percentage of .360 and a slugging percentage of .349. Rhymes played second base, third base and left field for the Chiefs.
In 130 games over three seasons with the Tigers and Rays, Rhymes is a .266/.328/.342 hitter.
Update II: Per a tweet from the Nationals, Rhymes’ deal is done.