WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - At first blush, the Nationals’ new spring training facility is, in a word, impressive. The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the $148 million complex they share with the Astros, will have that new-car smell for a while, especially considering the hoards of workers clad in reflective neon vests that lurk around every corner and move in packs throughout the place.
It’s big enough that you barely even notice that another major league team inhabits the other side of the complex. It’s small enough that fans will grow to appreciate the intimacy that has long been a hallmark of the Grapefruit League. And on Wednesday, as Nationals pitchers and catchers filed in and out of the clubhouse for physical exams, a few early arriving position players took to one of the practice diamonds in a four-field cloverleaf and it wasn’t long before Chris Heisey was smacking balls into the area where a dozen mounds will soon host batterymates. The balls rocketing from his bat made you wonder if protective netting will be installed to shield fans walking along the breezeway between the stations from flying missiles. But it was certainly great to hear the sound of ball meeting bat, and the accompanying cry of, “Heads up!” to warn the unknowing.
The Nationals clubhouse is a masterpiece, with teak locker stalls ringing the elliptical room. For the most part, the players are positioned numerically, though there are exceptions: catcher Derek Norris, who wears No. 23 is in the far corner, one stall to the left of infielder Wilmer Difo, who wears No. 1, and ace Max Scherzer’s locker is at the end of a row, though his No. 31 comes before the cubicle catcher Pedro Severino, who wears No. 29, will inhabit. Those are the perks of many years in the majors.
There are 24 red, leather chairs sprinkled around the room, many grouped in fours and sixes, with silvery tables that resemble spaceships in the middle of the clusters. Overhead, a ring of eight big-screen televisions is positioned for maximum viewing angles. Some of the newcomers to the organization spent part of Wednesday swapping out equipment bags bearing the logos of their former organizations for new Nationals swag. Versatile Brandon Snyder quickly dispensed of his old Braves bag, while infielder Corban Joseph’s Orioles bag looked conspicuously out of place.
It wasn’t long before reporters congregated in front of right-hander Blake Treinen’s locker, with a lot of the questions focusing on the fact that the Nationals still don’t have a designated ninth-inning guy. Treinen was quick to point out that veteran righty Joe Nathan, in camp on a minor league contract, has 377 career saves, second-most among active pitchers to the Tigers’ Francisco Rodriguez (430).
Treinen is one of the guys who could be in line for saves for the Nats in 2017. And though he hasn’t spent much time pondering that possibility during the offseason, it’s clear that he’d relish the chance to pitch the highest of high-leverage innings.
“I think if the opportunity presents itself, I would love to have that. Who wouldn’t want to have that opportunity?” said Treinen, who has one career save in 141 major league relief appearances. “But in saying that, we have a handful of guys here that have the stuff and have the experience to do it. Whatever role they decide to give us, I think we’re all going to be OK with it. We’re just kind of pulling for the next guy because that’s what made us successful last year.”
Figuring out who will close for the Nationals is perhaps the most prominent piece of unfinished offseason business. General manager Mike Rizzo made offers to incumbent Mark Melancon, who went to the Giants, and Kenley Jansen, who re-signed with the Dodgers. Rizzo talked trade for Wade Davis, who was shipped from the Royals to the Cubs, and David Robertson, who remains with the White Sox. But he came up empty, leaving manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Mike Maddux to choose from in-house candidates like right-handers Treinen, Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover and lefty Sammy Solis. Nathan is in the mix, but on the periphery of the competition. Treinen mused that he’s been watching Nathan, 42, since he was “in diapers” and is excited for the opportunity to glean whatever he can from the veteran.
One of the knocks on Treinen is his nice-guy persona, but the 28-year-old says he’s grown into his role as a multifaceted fireman who can succeed in any number of situations. Where some covet meanness or triple digits from a fireballer on the mound, Treinen is content to focus steely blue eyes on his catcher and go to work.
“People joke about that, that I’m too much of a nice guy,” Treinen said. “I think the idea is I’m not going to change who I am. I was raised how I am and my morals direct me the way that I am. But when I’m between the lines, I still know how to compete. There’s some dog in me, so I don’t listen to what people have to say about that. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion.”
Treinen has worked hard to correct some flaws in his game - left-handed hitters, who have a .305 average against him in his career, hit just .221 off him last season - and says he’s learned how to trust his bread-and-butter pitches, a sinking fastball that has bite at 95 mph and an 87 mph darting slider.
“More than trusting is learning how to have success with it,” he explained. “You can trust it as much as you want. I trusted it in ‘15 and ‘14, but in ‘14 I had success (because) nobody knew who I was. They didn’t know how to approach it. They got comfortable with me and started hitting the crud out of it. So you can trust it as much as you want, but I think it’s being smarter than trusting it. Knowing how to set it up and have the most success and learning how hitters are approaching you, learning their swings, learning what to do to keep them honest at the plate, that’s what helped me last year. I’m just going to try to emulate that this year. Not get the paralysis by analysis, but just get to have fun and try to roll with it.”
FanGraphs.com rates Treinen’s sinker as the second-best in baseball, behind only Orioles closer Zach Britton, who owns what it generally regarded as the game’s nastiest pitch. The spin rate, velocity, drop - all factor into a wipeout offering that Britton has mastered and Treinen used to generate a major league-leading 17 double plays in 2016.
“He’s definitely a guy that, as a sinkerballer, you watch,” Treinen said of Britton. “Obviously, he’s lefty and I’m righty, but to see how he attacks hitters, it’s fun and he does it with 80-plus percent fastballs. ... I didn’t see (the FanGraphs rankings), but he’s obviously very elite at what he does and his numbers last year put him at probably the best in the game. So I don’t think it’s a far cry to say I don’t watch what he does.”
But Treinen has worked hard to become a credible major league pitcher, so he doesn’t see the need to put much stock in rankings or the statistical metrics that seek to parse every pitch down to its base components. Ask him what makes a good closer and he’ll respond frankly that he’s not really sure.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder. I think some people might be, like not enough is made of it and some might say there’s too much made of it. You’re still throwing a baseball, you’re still trying to get outs. I don’t know if it really matters how you do it. There’s value in strikeouts, there’s value in not walking people, there’s value in velocity, there’s value in not throwing (with) velocity and commanding it. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, how you want to view your closer. And like I said, we got a handful of guys here that stand out, I think, to have that opportunity.”