WASHINGTON — How much do the Nationals love Spring Training? They’re starting it on Valentine’s Day 2018.
As per the usual schedule, pitchers and catchers will report first, on February 14. Position players will report five days later on February 19, and the first full-squad workouts will begin on February 21.
Interest in preseason action usually follows a bell curve; after a quick spike in interest, most fans find something else to do until opening day. However, this Spring Training promises to have plenty of storylines, and here are the top three:
1. New Coaches, New Approaches: It seems like only yesterday that Dusty Baker was the refreshing new face in town, but the Nationals already rallying around new manager Dave Martinez and his staff. In a steep departure from Baker’s old-school mentality, Martinez is expected to be loose with his players and tight with his metrics, relying on some of the new-fangled numbers to make coaching and personnel decisions. What does that actually look like? How will players respond, both in terms of morale and performance? Given that the team has been largely quiet in the free agent market this offseason, a lot remains to be defined on this front.
2. Healthy Returns: Adam Eaton was one of the big acquisitions heading into Spring Training last year, and remains a key question after an injury-doomed season. He recently called it both the “worst year” and “longest summer” of his life, and he looks like a player with a lot to prove in this outfield. The offensive emergence of Michael A. Taylor and departure of Jayson Werth could mean that Eaton shifts out of center field, but his health and the numbers will likely play a role in that decision.
Second baseman Daniel Murphy also looks to return in time for Opening Day, after having an offseason procedure to correct something in his knee. Murphy has been a leader in the clubhouse and at the plate in his first two seasons in Washington, and figures mightily into the team’s plans.
3. Who Else Wants a Curly W: The hot stove season is the coldest on record, with dozens of big-name free agents still available. The Nationals are a team well-positioned to be opportunists, as they were last offseason with Matt Wieters. As the clock ticks down to Spring Training, players will look for smaller, shorter contracts in order to improve their worth and strike it rich later. If there is a player that makes sense for the Nats, don’t be surprised even if it is adding to an area of strength. One such example is an MLB.com report that the Nats could be interested in dealing for Marlins’ catcher J.T. Realmuto and outfielder Christian Yelich. The Nats already have an answer at catcher and plans for all three outfield positions, but don’t sleep on general manager Mike Rizzo making a move if the deal is right.