With Nationals pitchers and catchers finally reporting to spring training at their new facility in West Palm Beach, baseball season is officially back, meaning a couple of things. First of all, you have obvious returns of the crack of the bats and that beautiful sound of ball meeting mitt. But it also means the return of many phrases ballplayers and managers love to use with the media, such as: “Next man up.”
Well, we here at MASNsports.com are taking that phrase quite literally over these first few days of camp. We send our thoughts and prayers to our Nationals beat reporter Mark Zuckerman and his loved ones, as he had to head back to D.C. today for a family matter. So while my colleague Pete Kerzel prepares to fly down to Florida to bring you all the latest happenings at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, I will have you covered today into tomorrow morning.
So with the housecleaning finished, let’s get to baseball.
The day pitchers and catchers report is always an exciting day on the calendar, but it is rarely an eventful one. The players show up, get their lockers situated, maybe get a quick workout in and, in the Nationals’ case, perhaps get a tour of their new training facility.
It’s also the first time we get to officially hear from manager Dusty Baker since the Winter Meetings and Nats Winterfest in December. When Baker met with the media today, the briefing consisted a lot of talk of the skipper returning to West Palm Beach, where he trained as a player with the Braves, and the Nats’ new facility (more on that tomorrow morning).
But Baker also was asked the biggest question of the Nationals’ offseason heading into spring training, one that has been proposed numerous times on this blog since the end of last season: How do you plan to handle the closing situation this spring?
“Well without a real bona fide closer, like I said, somebody always emerges,” Baker told reporters in West Palm Beach. “I don’t like by-committee because when the phone rings, I want our guys to know mentally when they might be in the game.
“So we’ll come up with that and if we have to still tweak and experiment, I mean last year, don’t forget, we didn’t start out knowing the roles of the guys here other than Pap (Jonathan Papelbon). ... We didn’t know where we were gonna use (Shawn) Kelley, we didn’t know when we were gonna use a lot of the guys that ended up emerging. But we learned which guys can pitch a lot and which guys have been injured and which guys need some rest and time off.”
Barring a new acquisition this spring, Kelley figures to be the guy to close out games. (Trade talks between the Nationals and White Sox regarding right-handed closer David Robertson are reportedly in a “stalemate.”) Kelley is the most experienced returning candidate, posting a 3.50 ERA in 356 big league games, and though he’s only recorded 11 saves in his career, seven of them came in his first season with the Nats last year. On top of those seven saves, Kelley had a 2.64 ERA, a 0.987 WHIP, 80 strikeouts and just 11 walks over 58 innings in 2016. But Kelley is a two-time Tommy John surgery recipient, a fact that’s keeping Baker wary of throwing the right-hander straight into the closer role.
“In Kelley’s case, we had to watch and monitor Kelley because Kelley’s one of the guys I was talking about that’s had two Tommy Johns,” Baker said. “I mean he seems the likely candidate, but we gotta see can his arm sustain? Or else we’ll be looking for somebody else and be without him, too. That’s the thing you don’t want. Then you gotta replace two people. And so, we’ll see.”
Blake Treinen’s name has been thrown into the closer conversation heading into the spring as well. The right-hander enjoyed a breakout season last year, completing his conversion to a reliever with a 2.28 ERA, only 51 hits allowed and a major league-best 17 double plays induced in 67 innings. But Treinen’s lack of experience in the back end of the bullpen and early struggles are the question marks surrounding him being the closer.
“Treinen didn’t start off back there,” Baker recalled. “Treinen started off, couldn’t get lefties out, that was the (reputation), and he didn’t and he wasn’t at the beginning. Everybody’s in that situation where you have to learn. And he learned. And he ended up getting lefties out equal to righties. So is that fair to say that he’s a candidate for that situation, or are we rushing him because you want him to evolve rather him quickly, but you want him to evolve and not destroy him?
“I’ve seen guys’ confidence get destroyed, too, and I’m going to call up on my past and what I’ve seen.”
Two other names that came up in today’s closer discussion are right-handers Koda Glover and veteran Joe Nathan. Glover, 23, cruised through the Nats’ system, but only pitched in 19 big league games last year before being shut down with a torn labrum in his hip in September.
“Yeah, I mean we gotta see how Koda is,” said Baker. “He’s one of the guys that was hurt at the end and he’s one of the guys that that’s the first time he ever got hit, you know what I mean? And so, we had Koda in the back end of games and then he had a little rough time.
“Everybody’s gonna have a rough time, it’s just a matter of how you respond to that rough time. That’s big. I’ve seen guys get a lot better, I’ve seen guys that can’t handle it. I know about Koda, I know he’s not afraid. And so, is he too bold? See, sometimes you can be too bold, too, know what I mean? He’s at a point, he’s young and he definitely has the stuff.”
Nathan, 42, is back with his former Giants manager, but having thrown just 6 2/3 big league innings over the last two seasons. But Baker is willing to give Nathan and his career 377 saves a fair shot.
“I mean he’s closed, too. I mean he’s one of the guys, I had him as a kid,” Baker said. “And I begged the Giants not to trade him. So I’m curious to see how much Joe is Joe. And so, it’s all about performance. We’ll see. I’ll try to leave emotion out of it as much as I can and just go with what I see or what may be. Sometimes you go on not only what you see, but what you project. You know, ‘Hey man, if you can do this here and then that down there and add that to your arsenal, then you can be even better.’ “
So here we are: Day 1 of Nationals spring training and we’ll have to wait and see who will fill the closer’s role. We could have a better idea on Thursday, when pitchers and catchers have their first workout. But then again, the 2017 Nats closer might not have even reported to camp yet ...
“And who knows, man?” asked Baker. “There might be something else in the works, there always is. Once you see what you have, once you see what other teams have, it’s like, ‘Wow, we got enough,’ or ‘We don’t have enough.’ “