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

Spring training is over. The Nationals are home at last. They have one more exhibition game later this afternoon against the Yankees (if weather permits) and then it’s time to turn our focus to Thursday’s season opener against the Mets.

It was a long six weeks down in West Palm Beach. When pitchers and catchers reported way back on Feb. 13, Bryce Harper was still two weeks away from signing with the Phillies. MLB was making plans to use a 20-second pitch clock this season. Trevor Gott and Sammy Solis were still members of the Nats bullpen.

So, a few things have changed since then.

There were some dominant storylines to this camp, but did they deserve to dominate the headlines as much as they did? And should we instead have paid more attention to other stories that got lost in the shuffle?

I came up with this idea last year, writing about spring training subjects we may have made too big a deal out of and other subjects we may have glossed over. It’s a bit of a fun re-read 12 months later, because some of this absolutely proved to be true while others absolutely proved not to be true.

But let’s give it another try this year. What did we make too big a deal about? And what did we gloss over?

rendon-in-white-homer.jpgBecause there was so much attention on Harper’s eventual signing, then a flurry of contract extensions other teams gave to soon-to-be-free agents, we were left asking on a regular basis whether the Nationals and Anthony Rendon were making any progress in their talks. The answer, according to sources: Not much. They remain far apart. This may cause some panic among those who believe this should’ve gotten done by now and the Nats are blowing it not locking up their third baseman before opening day. Here’s a thought: They’ve still got plenty of time to get this done. Both sides want to get it done. Both sides are going to have to sacrifice something to make it happen. But both sides seem willing to continue to talk about it well into the season. Stephen Strasburg signed his $175 million extension in early May. Who’s to say Rendon couldn’t do something similar as the season plays out?

There has definitely been concern expressed about the Nationals’ questionable depth if one of their five starters gets hurt. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde have much to prove if and when they get called upon. But why are we just assuming the starting five, even if healthy, is going to dominate? Max Scherzer and Strasburg are going to be very good, provided they take the mound every fifth day. But do we really know which versions of Patrick Corbin, Aníbal Sánchez and Jeremy Hellickson we’re going to get? All three were great in 2018. All three were decidedly not great in 2017. The hope is that the Nationals made the right decision to sign these three pitchers over the winter, but it would be foolish to just assume all three are going to pick up right where they left off last season.

It was the dominant storyline of camp: The Nationals focused on fundamentals, worked on the little things, all in an attempt to shore up their defense and baserunning and turn all those one-run losses from 2018 into one-run wins in 2019. It’s a nice narrative. But here’s the thing: Every team says it’s going to focus on fundamentals in spring training. When have you ever heard a manager say that wasn’t a priority? The Nats should be better defensively this season, not because they ran more drills on Field 4 but because Brian Dozier is replacing Daniel Murphy at second base, Victor Robles is replacing Harper in center field and Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki are replacing Matt Wieters and Pedro Severino behind the plate. The baserunning? Let’s see if it actually improves or not.

Any concern expressed this spring about the Nationals bullpen involved the need for a better lefty specialist (which they finally got in Tony Sipp) and a lack of sure things to fill out the final spots (Wander Suero, Justin Miller and Austen Williams may prove to be more than adequate in those roles). But we also just assumed the guys who pitch the eighth and ninth innings would be lights out. And I’m not sure it’s fair to assume that yet. Sean Doolittle missed two months last summer with a foot injury. He’s healthy now, and he had a very good spring except for one five-run blowup against the Cardinals. But remember the history here: Doolittle has never spent an entire season as a big league closer, and he hasn’t made more than 53 appearances in a season since 2014. Maybe he’ll be good for six months as an elite closer in 2019, but the Nats have to be prepared for the possibility he’s not. And their backup options right now are Trevor Rosenthal (who is coming back from Tommy John surgery, walked seven batters in 8 2/3 innings this spring and hasn’t yet pitched back-to-back days) and Kyle Barraclough (who walked five and surrendered three homers in 8 2/3 innings). Both right-handers have been dominant late-inning relievers before. Neither should be considered a sure thing right now.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, because when I saw Michael A. Taylor hit the ground hard making a diving catch in Fort Myers on March 15, I assumed it was bad. Then again, so did Martinez, who one day later announced Taylor sprained his left knee and hip and would miss a “significant” amount of time. Well, a couple days later Taylor was back on the field playing catch and hitting off a tee. He’ll open the season on the injured list, but he doesn’t expect to remain on it for long. The Nationals’ outfield depth is legitimately thin, but if Taylor only misses a couple of weeks to begin the season, this story won’t have been worthy of the attention it was given (again, yes, by yours truly).

Every spring, there’s one reliever who quietly keeps putting up zeroes and never draws any attention even though he deserves it. Two springs ago, it was Matt Albers, who had a 0.00 ERA and didn’t get interviewed for the first time until the final week of camp. He wound up as a vital part of a division-winning bullpen. This spring, it could be Williams, who didn’t make much of an impression last September in his first taste of the majors and came to camp well down the perceived depth chart. But the right-hander absolutely dominated, retired 22-of-24 batters faced. He may force his way onto the opening day roster. But even if he doesn’t, this guy may very well end up not only in D.C. early this season but ascending to a prominent role.

Harper. J.T. Realmuto. Andrew McCutchen. Jean Segura. A rabid fan base. The Phillies were all the talk of spring training, and everyone in Washington is now dreading the Philly invasion that’s likely to occur next Tuesday when Harper makes his first appearance at Nationals Park as a visiting player. But is this the team the Nationals should most be concerned about in the National League East? They went 80-82 last year. Yes, they improved their lineup. But the only significant addition to their pitching staff was 34-year-old reliever David Robertson. There’s also a lot of potentially combustible parts in that clubhouse. And with so much attention (and pressure) on them to win now, would it surprise anyone if things blow up?

While the Phillies, Mets and Nationals made all the headlines with their revamped rosters, the defending division champs basically kept everything intact, aside from adding Josh Donaldson and Brian McCann on short-term deals. Yeah, they’re still far from perfect - Julio Teheran somehow remains their opening day starter yet again - but there is loads of young talent on this team, and there is supposed to be more young talent on the verge of arriving, especially in the pitching department. These guys were eight games better than everyone else in the NL East last season. It would be a mistake to gloss over their ability to win more than 90 games this season and seriously challenge for another title.

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