Spring has sprung and a new baseball season is upon us, as Nationals pitchers and catchers officially report to West Palm Beach today for the start of camp.
The start of spring training for returning players and coaches means the start of a new pursuit for a championship. For fans, it means the start of another season of cheering on their favorite club. For new players, it means the opportunity to get familiar with new teammates and a new clubhouse.
With the additions of Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Brad Hand, Jon Lester and Alex Avila, the 2021 version of the Nationals will look quite different than last year’s team and much different than the 2019 World Series champions. But don’t forget that this season will look different from their perspectives, too, and there is excitement on their ends about starting a new season with this new team.
For Bell, it’s not just about moving from the rebuilding Pirates to the competitive Nationals; for former Cubs staples Schwarber and Lester, it’s not just about reuniting with manager Davey Martinez and other familiar faces from Chicago; for Hand, it’s not just about becoming the new face of the back end of the Nats bullpen; and for Avila, it’s not just about the chance to catch Max Scherzer again.
“Obviously, me being a middle-of-the-lineup guy, you look at the guys that are probably going to hit in front of me, you look at Turner, Robles and Soto, and especially after the years that they’ve had in the past, it’s definitely exciting,” Bell said during his introductory Zoom conference call after being traded to Washington in December. “Anybody that can steal one or two bases just like that in a guy like Trea and Soto and Robles, you obviously want speedsters hitting in front of you. You obviously want that guy that can turn a shallow fly ball into a sac fly and have no contest on ground balls with the infield in running home on contact. So I’m definitely excited to hit behind those guys.”
Who wouldn’t be?
Soto built upon an already stellar résumé for a player his age with an historic 2020 season, leading the majors with a .490 on-base percentage, a .695 slugging percentage and a 1.185 OPS, and finishing second with a .351 batting average. He also led the Nats with 13 home runs and was second with 37 RBIs in just 47 games, helping him to a top-five finish in National League MVP voting. Not to mention his career .972 OPS is second among all active outfielders behind only Mike Trout.
Turner, meanwhile, had a career year last season, slashing .335/.394/.588 with a .982 OPS, 12 home runs and team-high 41 RBIs. He received MVP votes for the first time in his career, placing seventh. Since debuting in 2015, Turner has the second-highest batting average (.296), third-best on-base percentage (.353) and is tied for the third-highest OPS (.833) among all active shortstops.
And although Robles struggled throughout the 2020 campaign, he still has the potential to be an elite outfielder who can hit for average and reach base at a high rate, a profile that once made him the Nats’ No. 1 prospect.
“I definitely think this lineup’s gonna be dangerous,” Schwarber said during his Zoom meeting with reporters. “I mean, when you look at Soto, I think he’s the best hitter in the game, I really do. Even at his age, I think he’s one of the best hitters in the game. And he’s showing it on a consistent basis right now what he can do. I’m excited to get around him and talk hitting with him. I’m excited to learn something from this guy.
“And obviously Trea, I played with Trea on the college national team. Really toolsy, fast guy. The guy’s a threat to steal a base any time. And the way that he’s been driving the ball, getting on base, you can’t say enough about what he does and how he plays defense, great defensive player.”
The praises didn’t stop there.
“It’s obvious with what Soto’s done over his short time so far in the big leagues, it’s pretty incredible. Spectacular, really,” Avila said during his meeting with reporters. “So he’s a lot of fun to watch. I’m looking forward to getting to see Trea Turner play every day, though, that’s for one thing. He seems like one of the most dynamic players in baseball and that’ll be fun to watch every day.”
Even the incoming pitchers are eager to join these young talents in the Nationals clubhouse, perhaps because they no longer have to face them from an opposing mound in a real game situation.
“I think just kinda the youth,” said the 37-year-old Lester when asked what excites him about joining the Nationals. “There’s a lot of youth here. Obviously, you got one of the best players in baseball in your outfield (Soto). ... I’m excited about having fun and just playing baseball. And hopefully, we win a lot of ballgames.”
As for Hand, it wasn’t just the young talent that was already here. It was also the Nats’ ability to go out and add even more young stars in the 27-year-old Schwarber, a former World Series champion, and the 28-year-old Bell, a former All-Star and Rookie of the Year finalist.
“Yeah, for sure, it’s big,” Hand said. “Obviously, the moves that the Nationals have already made this offseason, bringing in Schwarber and Bell, two big moves there. ... I think we got a good chance to go deep into the playoffs. So that was big, obviously. This is going to be one of the tougher divisions in baseball, competition-wise, so we’re gonna have to be ready to go and prepared for that. But I like our chances.”
So should the Nationals. Despite playing in the highly competitive NL East and already having some less-than-favorable preseason projections, they have proven once again to be a highly sought out destination for established players looking to compete and win by building around budding stars like Soto, Turner and Robles.
If youth is the hope of the future, the Nationals have more bright days ahead.