What we made too big a deal about, and what we glossed over

Spring training is over. The Nationals packed their bags after Sunday’s 2-2 tie against the Marlins and took their charter flight home to D.C. as the somewhat-proud owners of a 12-12-3 record in Grapefruit League play. (Hey, after going 4-11 last year en route to 55-107 in the regular season, any hint of success is ready to be proud.)

There’s one more exhibition to play Tuesday afternoon against the Yankees at Nationals Park. Then the Braves arrive for Thursday’s 2023 season opener, and we’re off and running.

We touched on a whole lot of topics over the last six weeks, some more frequently than others. So consider this something of an exercise in course correction. Too often we pay too much attention to something in spring training that doesn’t matter much in the regular season. And conversely, too often we ignore a subject that absolutely proves significant over the ensuing six months.

So as everyone gets settled in to their homes and apartments and looks ahead to Opening Day, let’s run through some topics we perhaps made too big a deal out of this spring, and some others we might have glossed over …

The primary topic of spring training, for better or worse, is always going to be starting pitching. Those are the guys who need the most work to get ready for the season. They’re the ones who are going to draw the most attention. And after the Nationals rotation went a horrific 30-86 with a 5.97 ERA last season, this revamped unit was always going to be the center of attention this spring. In the end, these guys will probably be fine. Yes, Cade Cavalli’s Tommy John surgery was a huge blow. But Josiah Gray looked great this spring, MacKenzie Gore flashed his ability to dominate, Patrick Corbin looked serviceable and Trevor Williams looked like a nice addition. This isn’t going to morph into anything close to a club strength, but it really shouldn’t be a disaster this year like it was last year.

Nationals relievers were an actual strength last season, finishing with a 3.84 ERA that ranked sixth in the National League and 1.282 WHIP that ranked seventh. And with everyone of consequence back, everyone just assumes it will be a strength again, right? Well, maybe not. Relievers are so fickle year to year, it’s always hard to know what you’re going to get. Can Kyle Finnegan be a consistent late-inning weapon? Was Carl Edwards Jr.’s bounce back 2022 a fluke? Is there any chance Hunter Harvey can stay healthy an entire year? There’s still no proven lefty in the group, and we don’t know when Sean Doolittle will be healthy (or if he’ll be effective). Maybe the Nats bullpen continues to be a strength. But it’s not wrong to worry it could flip the other way.

Given there were no starting jobs up for grabs, and most of the bench was already set as well, the only real competition among position players this spring was for the last job. And it went right down to the wire, with Michael Chavis outlasting Matt Adams and Jeter Downs … for now. (There’s still a chance the Nationals could pick up someone else who was dropped by another club.) Thing is, it doesn’t really matter that much who holds this role. Whoever it is, he’s not going to play much. Davey Martinez isn’t going to be sitting his regulars all that much, and there aren’t going to be many pinch-hitting or pinch-running opportunities. For all the anguish over this camp battle, its actual impact on the team was probably minimal.

Look, it’s impossible not to look at what Meneses did for two months last year, then for two weeks in the World Baseball Classic and not be supremely impressed. The 30-year-old very much looked like the real deal. But to be honest, he didn’t look good at all in actual Grapefruit League play, finishing 7-for-37 with one double and two RBIs. Now, maybe Joey just performs better on the bigger stage, when the stakes are higher. That would be great if it proves true. But we do have to remind ourselves he’s still incredibly unproven. It wouldn’t be shocking if he ends up having an All-Star season, but it also wouldn’t be shocking if he ends up flopping altogether.

It was the No. 1 story of the spring across Florida and Arizona, impossible to ignore. It’s a fundamental change to a sport that hasn’t changed all that much in more than a century. But are we really going to be talking about it all season long? Yes, game times will be much shorter, with 2 1/2 hours perhaps the new standard instead of 3 hours. But while the first week or two of April will see its share of clock violations and controversy, the guess here is that players will adapt quickly. And that for the rest of the season, we’ll barely even notice the clock, aside from the realization games are regularly ending before 9:45 p.m. 

You always expect pitchers to be ahead of hitters in spring training, but in this case it continued all the way through the end of March. The Nationals scored an average of only 3.8 runs per game down here; only the Marlins ranked lower. As was the case last season, they did a good job of making contact and hit for a decent batting average, but their .368 slugging percentage also ranked 29th out of 30 clubs. On paper, this doesn’t look like a potent lineup, certainly not in the power department. Maybe the season won’t play out that way, but it’s clearly cause for concern.

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