Reading the tea leaves of early Nats spring training camp!

Photo by Steve Mears for TalkNats

Early season camp includes literally hundreds of interviews and photos. There are so many that is hard to keep up with who said what and the context some times. Nothing really earth shattering has been said in Washington Nationals camp, but there have been some interesting conversations about batting orders that we will discuss. While the interviews, photos, and workouts were taking place, World Series signs were being affixed to walls and stanchions, and some players already want to turn the page on World Series talk. Outfielder Adam Eaton was quite outspoken yesterday that the 2019 World Series win was old news. The longest tenured Nats player, Ryan Zimmerman, felt it was time to turn the page.

“It’s 2020 now. At some point, you have to turn the page,” said Zimmerman who is attending his 15th spring training camp. “No one will ever take that year away from us, obviously, but for us to succeed this year, we have to move forward.”

Sorry Ryan, the fans and players are going to be stuck in nostalgic looks back at the World Series win for a long long time. Heck, the entire first homestand of the season is being advertised as “Champions Week” and yesterday players got sized for their World Series rings. The air of the World Series victory is still fresh in so many minds, and at least Howie Kendrick spoke about it yesterday. In fact, Howie also said there was no doubt that he was coming back to D.C. for this 2020 season.

“I had a good idea I was going to be back here,” Kendrick said. “I didn’t worry about that too much. I had a few teams talking to me this offseason, but the biggest thing for me is, this was probably my number one spot. I had communication with Rizzo, and he knew how I felt, and I knew how the team felt, too. So it worked out.”

The money was right for Kendrick who got a sizable deal with a $4 million base plus a $2.25 million buyout if the Nats decide not to exercise his $6.5 million mutual option for 2021. For this World Series hero and NLCS MVP it seemed like a no-brainer for his production in 2019. Lest you forget, Howie’s slash for the entire 2019 season was about the best on the team .344/.395/.572/.966. His AAV hit is $6.25 million for this season, and don’t be surprised if he returns for 2021 on that option. His reasons for returning clearly was not about money and was about the people in the Nats organization.

“Just the people here,” Kendrick said was his reasons to come back. “The atmosphere. The people. The players. Davey was a big part of that, too. And my relationship with all of the coaches. I knew what I had here. I knew the people here, and I knew my role here as a player. As a veteran guy, to be around all these guys in this locker room and to be able to help them, I think that was a big part of it, too.”

Some might say he took less money to come back to the Nats, and that seems like a fact. In a day and age where most players won’t stay with a team for less money, Kendrick bucked that trend. He never really even broke the bank as a player. Heck he won’t even break $75 million for his career which is a number his teammate Stephen Strasburg will eclipse in 2 ¼ seasons. Howie took his postseason money and banked most of it, but splurged on some new watches, a new modified Jeep Gladiator, and a new tattoo. Where Howie will play in the Nationals 2020 infield though is another story that has not been written. Expect to see him all over the infield diamond at first base, second base and some third base according to manager Dave Martinez.

Onlookers tweeted out from the first official position players practice that Carter Kieboom and Asdrubal Cabrera were at third base, Starlin Castro and Howie Kendrick were at second base and Eric Thames and Ryan Zimmerman were at first base. Of course Trea Turner was at shortstop, and nobody mentioned Wilmer Difo who was signed to a $1 million non-guaranteed deal in the offseason to avoid arbitration. Some are reading the tea leaves and think all of this means something. Actually it means very little at this point. No, Kieboom is not guaranteed a starting spot on Opening Day if Asdrubal Cabrera is healthy. No decision has been made on whether or not Difo will make the team. Maybe the only certainty is that Trea Turner has a clear path to the starting shortstop spot. That is something we could not say for sure just three years ago.

Speaking of Turner, one of the most interesting quotes yesterday was about the batting order. At the Nats season plan holder “Hot Stove” event, the manager said that he will experiment with batting orders, and Trea could see time in the three hole. That is a point to debate. Why change what is working and basically neutralize Turner’s greatest asset which is his innate ability to wreak havoc on the bases. It is the intangible that even the Mensa statheads can’t quantify. If he is batting in front of Juan Soto, you don’t want Turner running and dancing at first base to disrupt the keenly focused twenty-one year old. You want the speedster out there getting into the pitcher’s mind at the top of the order.

There you have Trea’s words on the batting order. Who knows. Some people think you need to go L-R-L-R-L etc or in the Nats case R-L-R-L-R but most manager don’t subscribe to that theory. You can stack lefties after Turner and go Eaton to Soto then back to Kendrick or you could bat Howie third and Eric Thames or Zim after Soto. If Starlin Castro shows that the magic elixir in his mechanical tweaks is who he really is then maybe he should be batting third. Keep in mind that in the final two months of the season in 2019, Castro took that revamped stance and turned it into a .310/ .345/ .593/ .937 slash that made the four-time All-Star a main free agent target of general manager Mike Rizzo.

At the end of September, fans mostly care about the wins and making the postseason. The tweaks are in at Fangraphs and also in Vegas. While Fangraphs still believes the Nats are slightly better in the standings than the Mets because of the geographical interleague matchups (Nats play the Orioles and the Mets play the Yankees), they are a virtual tie today. The MGM sportsbook however has the Braves winning the NL East with the Nationals in second place. MGM has the Nats at 89.5 wins set for the over/under which is above Fangraphs .541 winning percentage (87.6 wins). In fact, the NL East team WAR numbers have gone through some major tweaks today. The Nats in the last week went from 43.4 to 44.0 to 44.7 today. The Braves have been bumped up to 43.2 from 39.9 with no new acquisitions. So here is what the Fangraphs WAR looks like today:

Screenshot of Fangraphs team WAR charts from 2-19-2020

Expect more tweaks leading up to opening day. The tea leaves are giving no clear indications at this point except for that the Nationals should be a very good team once again!

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