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

Spring training is officially over. The Nationals boarded their charter flight in West Palm Beach after Sunday’s game and departed for Washington, ready to get the 2024 season going.

There’s still one more exhibition to play (Tuesday’s “Futures Game” against the organization’s prospects) before Thursday’s season opener in Cincinnati, but it’s OK to take a moment today to look back at what transpired over the last six weeks and share some thoughts.

As is always the case, we spend a lot of time at spring training obsessing over certain roster spots or job competitions. And by the end of camp, you can’t help but wonder if that time and energy was well spent.

It’s in that spirit that we present an annual feature on the morning after the spring training finale: What did we maybe make too big a deal about, and what did we potentially gloss over during our time in Florida …

It was impossible not to devote a ton of attention to the row of top prospects whose lockers were all together right by the front door of the Nationals’ clubhouse. And there was plenty to get excited about from that group. But talk about their chances of making the Opening Day roster was probably premature. Yes, James Wood looked great, batting .364 with an MLB-best 1.214 OPS. But he’s also a 21-year-old with half a season of experience at Double-A. Yes, Dylan Crews had his moments. But he was still playing at LSU this time last year and struggled in his brief time in Harrisburg last September. Brady House? He’s still got a ways to go. Only Trey Lipscomb (the least-talked-about prospect at the start of spring) played his way into the conversation at the end of camp. He turns 24 this summer, he looks very comfortable at three infield positions, and he consistently hit all spring. But even if he doesn’t make the roster, it’s not the end of the world. All of these guys will eventually be playing in D.C. The real test comes now that spring training is over.

You know who played really well all spring? The same guy who played really well all last spring and last April, before a lower back injury ruined his season. Robles finished the spring with a .368/.455/.526 slash line. He wasn’t caught stealing. He played good defense and made smart decisions. This is actually what he did last spring, and actually what he did early last season before suffering the injury. No, he’s not part of the Nationals’ long-term future. That ship has sailed. But he may prove to be more than serviceable to start the season and hold down the fort until Wood, Crews or Robert Hassell III is ready to be called up.

It was only natural to focus on the two key young members of the rotation, given their performances last year and their importance in the long run. Gray deserved his first career Opening Day assignment, and Gore deserved his first career home opener assignment. But each had an erratic spring that doesn’t necessarily leave you 100 percent confident entering the season. Both should be fine in the long run, but neither should be considered a sure thing at this point.

You know who looked the best among the starters this spring? The guy who doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the others. Irvin had one ragged outing against the Astros in which he admittedly was “working on stuff.” Davey Martinez and Mike Rizzo set him straight, told him to just compete, and Irvin proceeded to dominate the rest of the way. Over his final three starts, he tossed 15 scoreless innings, allowing only four hits and two walks while striking out 13. Does that mean he’s destined to keep that up in the regular season? No. But he already exceeded expectations as a rookie. Maybe he’s poised to exceed expectations again as a sophomore.

There’s nothing like a good battle for the No. 5 starter’s job to keep spring training interesting, especially when it goes right down to the wire. And much time was spent wondering whether Zach Davies would unseat Trevor Williams for the job. In the end, Davies blew up in his last start and Williams retained his job by default. Fans obviously aren’t excited about that, but let’s keep something important in mind: The odds of Williams spending the entire season in the rotation are slim. Jackson Rutledge had a good spring and will be the first starter called up from Triple-A. Cade Cavalli remains on-target for a June-ish return from Tommy John surgery. Mitchell Parker, Cole Henry and DJ Herz could all make their debuts sometime this season. Yes, Williams will open the season in the rotation. But the leash is going to be really short, and he’s almost certainly going to be replaced by a more promising young arm at some point, probably sooner rather than later.

In their efforts to improve offensively from last season, the Nationals might have overlooked an important part of the game: Defense. Go around the field, and there’s reason to be worried they’re going to be worse at several positions. At first base, where Joey Gallo and Joey Meneses won’t be as smooth as Dominic Smith was. At third base, where Nick Senzel won’t remind anyone of Jeimer Candelario. In left field, where Eddie Rosario and Jesse Winker won’t play as well as Alex Call and Stone Garrett did last season. There were already defensive concerns about catcher and second base. Put that all together, and the Nats might need to score a lot more runs this year to make up for the runs they give up by giving opponents more than 27 outs.

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