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This season will be different than any other that Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez has experienced in his four previous seasons in D.C. The Nats enter a new era due to the departures of World Series champions Max Scherzer and Trea Turner last year and the recent retirement of the face of the franchise, Ryan Zimmerman. Following a last place finish in the NL East last year, the Nats hope the return of a healthy Stephen Strasburg, the addition of 41-year-old power hitter Nelson Cruz, the acquisitions of well-regarded young players in 23-year-old catcher Keibert Ruiz and 24-year-old right-hander Josiah Gray, and timely returns of Sean Doolittle and Aníbal Sánchez, heroes from their magical 2019 World Series run, will invigorate a club heading in a new direction.
Still, expectations will be tempered against a stacked NL East. The Mets appear to be ready to make a run with the rejuvenated Francisco Lindor and the signing of Scherzer. The Braves are the defending World Series champions and return a healthy Ronald Acuña Jr. in addition to replacing Freddie Freeman with first baseman Matt Olson. Meanwhile, the Nats, who open the 2022 season on April 7 against the Mets at home, have won only 91 times in 222 games over the past two seasons, and will battle to stay out of the cellar with the upstart Marlins and the Bryce Harper-led Phillies. The ever-positive Martinez will be tasked with building back up to the success the Nats enjoyed in the 2010s.
For the Nats to return to those successful years, they will need their starting pitching staff to keep the score down and the new lineup to score runs. Big question marks abound. Will Strasburg return to his 2019 form? What is going on with Patrick Corbin? Gray showed flashes of being a top shelf starter, but can he do it for 33 starts? With Turner gone, how will the Nats shore up their middle infield?
Martinez is optimistic about where the team is at, despite the challenges.
“I like the balance of what we are doing right now,” Martinez said during the first week of spring training. “These guys have had success. They understand the game. We are bringing in [Cruz] that could really teach our guys how to really work an at-bat. That will be great for our young players. I know this guy is a professional hitter.”
Cruz takes over as the club’s first-ever designated hitter, arriving with seven straight full seasons of 30 or more homers. He is a critical addition to the lineup and will help protect the bat of 23-year-old superstar Juan Soto.
The Nats also acquired 26-year-old outfielder Lane Thomas in a trade late last season that sent veteran starter Jon Lester to the St. Louis Cardinals. Thomas is looking forward to putting his signature on the new Nats.
“I definitely think we have a chance to be good,” Thomas said. “As an offense, we did a lot of good things last year. Even in the last couple months I was there, I thought we didn’t have any problems scoring runs. We got some really big arms. Once some of those guys figure it out, I think that can be dangerous too. We just need to put it all together. I’m excited.”
One of Martinez’s strengths is his ability to communicate with his players and making new players and those that have been around feel welcome and valued. Reliever Kyle Finnegan felt that trust when he joined the Nats in 2020.
“I would say Davey is super player-friendly,” Finnegan said. “I feel totally comfortable going up [and] talking to him. Not always baseball, just, ‘Hey, how are you doing? How’s the family?’ Everything like that … As far as the baseball side, he gives me a lot of confidence in myself. He is constantly building me up and telling me what I am good at, what might make me more successful, and I think that is the makings of a great manager: to put players in the best places to be successful and personally I think he’s done great for me with that.”
The Nationals key to success in 2019 centered around an ability to mesh veterans with youth. At the start of the 2021 season, the Nats had the oldest roster by pitchers with an average age of 30.1 years. Even with the return of Doolittle and Sánchez (not to mention Cruz), the Nats average age is going to drop, and with that, big league experience. The Nats’ battery of Ruiz and Gray have a combined 35 big league games, while the Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom and catcher James McCann have 920 games and the Braves duo of Max Fried and Travis d’Arnaud have combined for 699 games over their careers. That youthful inexperience is not something Martinez is concerned about.
“I’ve learned a lot from these guys,” Martinez said. “One thing that I have always said, especially with the younger group, is you are teaching every day. You got to understand that they got a long way to go to get to where you need them to be.”
Even with so many younger players, Finnegan believes they can exceed the lowered expectations.
“We can’t pay attention to the outside noise,” Finnegan said. “We’ve got tons of good players in that locker room. Anybody can win in this game, so we are keeping our heads down and we are going to work. We are trying to win every day. Go 1-0, everyday. That’s the mantra so that’s what we are working towards.”
Go 1-0, everyday. Now, where have we heard that before?