5 storylines to watch at the start of Nationals spring training


Thursday is the day. Well, Wednesday is the day, then Thursday is the first action for reporters, onlookers and everyone else who shows at the Nationals’ spring training facility in West Palm Beach.

Pitchers and catchers report Wednesday. Reporters are in the clubhouse Thursday morning. There will be much to discuss. Here are five storylines to look for from Day One of spring training:

1. The sign-stealing controversy is not going away soon

Thursday will be the first day for Nationals pitchers to comment about the new information from Houston’s sign-stealing controversy. Recent reporting in the Wall Street Journal suggested former Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow was aware of the team’s camera use in order to steal signs on their way to the 2017 World Series title. Former Astros manager A.J. Hunch apologized several times in an interview on MLB Network. The continuation of this black eye for baseball will lead to interesting comments from the World Series champions’ clubhouse.

In particular, Sean Doolittle and Max Scherzer -- both veterans with extended interest in and influence on union issues -- will have clear stances. The Nationals’ players are in a unique position to comment since they beat Houston in the World Series. They will not sound like complainers after winning. However, the conundrum for any player is how far to go in public comments since those comments will, at least in part, be directed at union brethren.

2. Third base will be a topic

Only pitchers and catchers are required to report Wednesday. But, don’t be surprised if Carter Kieboom is already at the facility.

Kieboom arrived early to spring training last year when it was clear he would not make the team. This season, the Nationals will provide him an extended chance to become the starting third baseman. He needs as many reps as possible. So, it’s likely he shows up early or has already been there, especially since he spends the offseason in Georgia.

The rookie will be managing different levels of pressure. He expects big things personally. He is replacing Anthony Rendon. He is playing for the defending champions, though they will slot him lower in the order to start.

Kieboom will --unfairly, but understandably -- be compared to Rendon and Josh Donaldson at every turn during the season. If Kieboom starts the season at third and strikes out three times against Jacob deGrom while Rendon homers in his Angels debut, the reaction will not be rational. That tracking will continue for much of the season since this is the team’s biggest gamble going into 2020.

3.  How about those newish relievers?

Will Harris. Daniel Hudson. Sean Doolittle. Sounds better than last year’s back end of the bullpen, right?

Question for Doolittle: How is he after last year’s huge workload?
Question for Hudson: Is last year repeatable or an outlier?
Question for Harris: Can he continue his impressive stability in a volatile position?
Question for Davey Martinez: How will these guys be used?

Doolittle remains the closer. Hudson will close on occasion. Harris is more inclined to be a setup man. Also, don’t forget Tanner Rainey. Martinez will likely lump him in with this trio when talking about how he can mix-and-match. Dealing with a short start? Pitch these four to finish a game.

And, the bullpen can’t be worse than last year. Right? Right? RIGHT?

4. Mike Rizzo and Davey Martinez are in the final years of their respective contracts

The future of both is a topic which will gain steam the longer it lingers. Rizzo’s contract expires at the end of the season. Martinez’s contract has a team option on it. So, resolution could be swift there.

However, the organization tends to let these things drag. The wrinkle this year is the PR aspect following a World Series win. Are they going to let the manager and general manager wonder for an extended period? Are they going to risk irritating either in the name of bargaining? Both are at a point of instantaneous hire if they depart next offseason. So, for once, the pressure is on ownership more than the front office head or manager.

5. How will the fight against complacency look?

Martinez already shuffled coaching duties to provide a bit of change. He and Rizzo said spring training will be similar to ones in the past when it comes to the starting pitchers who worked so hard through the postseason. But, what else will be different? Signs? Slogans? Drills?

Martinez went through this with the Cubs.

“Going through all these playoffs and the World Series like we did, '16 and now, I learned a lot about what to do, how to come out of that and what we need to do,” said Martinez in the offseason. “We need to set a precedent early. We've got to come out ready to play. Like I said, we're not going to sneak up on any team. A lot of teams are getting better. We've got to be prepared and be ready to play from day one.”

A large red flag which said “Conquer” on it was toted around last season. It hung outside of Martinez’s office door on the road. Well, they did that. Now what?

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