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

The Nationals woke up this morning in Washington. Spring training is officially over, and the final countdown to opening night is on.

This was a spring unlike any previous one, with protocols, reduced fan capacities and reduced travel across Florida. But it still was, first and foremost, about baseball. The Nats avoided any real COVID-19 issues and were able to keep their focus on the field, which is exactly how every team should want it to be.

To that end, we spent a lot of time talking about and talking to a handful of players who seemed to remain the center of attention throughout camp. Along the way, perhaps we paid too much attention to those figures and ignored others who deserved to be seen.

Spring training is forever misleading. We think we know what’s important at the time and what isn’t. Then the season begins and none of that matters anymore. And come October, we can barely remember what we were obsessed with in March.

In that vein, it’s time to continue what has become an annual tradition around here. Let’s look back at the storylines we made too big a deal out of this spring and those we completely glossed over but shouldn’t have ...

Did you hear Josh Bell and Ryan Zimmerman had monster springs at the plate? Yes, you did, because we mentioned it every single day. Not that we could avoid it: The Nationals’ first base duo combined to hit a staggering .419 (31-for-74) with 12 homers, 30 RBIs, .477 on-base percentage and 1.477 OPS. How can you not get excited over that? Let’s just state that yes, you should be excited about the prospects of this combo working out exceptionally well this season. But let’s also point out both Bell and Zimmerman are notorious streaky hitters. Neither is likely to keep up anything close to this pace for 162 games. They may still wind up very good, but chances are they won’t be MVP-caliber good.

Pitching and offense draw headlines in spring training. Defense doesn’t, aside from the token stories we all write at the start of camp about the manager’s desire to “focus on the fundamentals” and “not give teams more than 27 outs.” Then the games start and we barely notice what happens in the field. The Nationals, though, desperately need to be a better defensive club in 2021 after ranking dead-last in the majors in several categories last year. But will they actually be better? Victor Robles did look more like his elite 2019 self in center field, and that’s a good thing. But Bell looked like the poor defensive first baseman he was touted as when he was acquired, and that’s a bad thing. Outside of Robles, the Nats may not have one everyday position player you’d say is clearly an above-average fielder. They may not be worst-in-the-league bad again, but this could remain a significant problem area.

You may have heard by now that Carter Kieboom didn’t make the roster and will instead open the season at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg. Strike that. You most definitely have heard by now, because it was impossible to ignore the near-daily Kieboom update this spring. How could the Nationals have just handed over the starting third base job to a young player who has failed to live up to expectations all this time and not have a firm Plan B in place? To be sure, Kieboom’s spring was an abject failure. He looked lost at the plate, and the Nats had no choice but to demote him. But let’s not place too much weight on this story. Kieboom was always going to be a complementary player for the Nationals. He wasn’t going to be the star of this year’s team. He was going to bat eighth. Are they ultimately that much better off without him (or worse off with him)? It may not make that huge a difference in the end, in part because of ...

All the stories about Kieboom being in danger of (and then actually) losing the third base job included more than a passing mention of Starlin Castro and how the veteran infielder figured into the process. Castro, of course, is now the opening night third baseman. But he was going to be in the lineup regardless. The guy who benefits the most from Kieboom’s demise is Josh Harrison, who now becomes the primary starting second baseman. Perhaps the veteran utility man would be better in a jack-of-all-things role off the bench, but he’s hardly going to hurt the Nationals as a near-everyday player. He’s a career .273 hitter. He’s compiled 23 Defensive Runs Saved in 443 career games at second base, and another 23 DRS in 276 games at third base. Oh, and he hit .417 (15-for-36) this spring. Harrison may not get a lot of attention, but he’s a solid, solid ballplayer and will help the Nationals more than he hurts them.

Hernán Pérez, Jordy Mercer and Luis Avilán all made the opening night roster, all despite coming to camp on minor league contracts. Who saw that coming? No one. But let’s not go crazy over these developments. Pérez and Mercer are backups and aren’t likely to see a ton of playing time. Avilán is a second lefty in the bullpen, but is going to have to face some right-handed hitters because of the league’s three-batter minimum rule. Don’t expect him to see a lot of high-leverage spots, at least early on. Besides, as much as we stress over opening day rosters, they rarely stay as-is for long. Here are some long-forgotten names, all of them having made the Nats’ opening day roster in the last decade, but all of them having disappeared soon thereafter: Emilio Bonifácio (2020), Jake Noll (2019), Miguel Montero (2018), Reed Johnson (2015), Brett Carroll and Xavier Nady (2012). Point is, it doesn’t matter who’s on the roster April 1. It matters who’s on the roster July 1, Aug. 1, Sept. 1 and Oct. 1.

We’ve pointed out how the Nationals bullpen doesn’t look nearly as deep today as it did when camp opened, following the release of Jeremy Jeffress, the injury of Will Harris, and the sluggish spring performances of Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson and Tanner Rainey. But beyond that is another potential problem: This eight-man relief corps has an odd mishmash of arms. Both Erick Fedde and Austin Voth made it as long relievers, though it appears possible at least one of them will get a look in shorter spurts. Avilán gives them a second lefty, but is a second lefty necessary when all relievers are required to face three batters? It could take a little while for everyone’s roles to be sorted out.

Hey, did you hear the Mets have a new owner who is willing to spend big bucks and a new shortstop who has reportedly turned down a 10-year, $325 million offer before he enters his walk year? The New York tabloids love the “Amazins” these days, but is the love warranted? The Mets are no sure thing. They’ve got to wait for starters Carlos Carrasco and Noah Syndergaard to return from significant injuries. The bullpen continues to be built around Edwin Díaz, Dellin Betances and Jeurys Familia. And they always seem to be one embarrassing moment away from utter collapse. They’ve got enough talent to contend in the National League East, that’s for sure. But they need to actually prove a little about their worth before anyone hands them a division crown.

The National League East is the deepest division in baseball, but nearly all of the credit goes to the Nationals, Braves, Mets and Phillies. Word to the wise: Don’t sleep on the Marlins. Sure, their surprise run to the postseason after a 31-29 season in 2020 had some fluky elements to it. And it’s tough to know how they’re going to hold up over a full 162-game schedule. But there is a lot of young talent in Miami, starting with a rotation anchored by Sixto Sánchez, Sandy Alcántara and Pablo López. The lineup doesn’t blow you away, but they’ve got guys who can get the job done. And they’ve got a manager in Don Mattingly who gets the most from his roster. Maybe they’re not threats to win the NL East, but they don’t deserve to be ignored the way they mostly have been all spring.

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