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Changes still happening midway through Nationals ‘Summer Camp’

Changes still happening midway through Nationals ‘Summer Camp’

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals are shifting to night-time work to replicate what may be coming in just more than a week. Opening Day is creeping, the league is still dealing with stumbling blocks and the defending World Series champions are short key players.

Everyone in the league has dealt with a coronavirus-related setback since “Summer Camp” began July 3. Testing results lagged. Asymptomatic players have tested positive. Large groups -- like the swath of Nationals players from Latin America and the entire Astros pitching staff -- have needed to enter quarantine. Those setbacks can be worked around during practices. Massive problems will exist if they occur in the middle of the season.

A variety of small things are being dealt with while the larger issues are managed. Players are testing masks in the field. They are adjusting to not having protein bars around, not spitting, carrying around their own bag of baseballs. These items are small, and tedious, and resonate as less-than-minor problems in the middle of a pandemic. But, they are part of the new baseball process.
 
“Um … I think it’s terrible,” first baseman Eric Thames said of the day-to-day with the new protocols. “Not so much the practices, but just, like, the rules we have to follow. We can’t eat protein bars on the bench. We can’t celebrate with our teammates. Even on a ground ball, usually you throw the ball around the infield, but you can’t have more than two guys touch a ball.

“So rules like that are annoying. But you have to do it to keep everybody safe and be able to play in a few weeks.”

One celebration in play: the helmet tap. Jake Noll executed it over the weekend after hitting a home run. He and his teammate botched it at first, almost appearing to have forgotten that was the new plan, before clanging the top of their helmets together with extended arms.

Ghost around-the-horn sessions are in play, too. Following a strikeout, the entire infield goes through the process while the catcher throws the ball lightly back to the pitcher. If the ball is coming out of play -- which is often -- the infield will execute a real around-the-horn session.

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Pitchers are coming into their regular entrance music: ‘Seven Nation Army’ for Stephen Strasburg, ‘Still D.R.E’ for Max Scherzer, the profanity-laced, heavily-edited ‘Who am I’ for Javy Guerra. Music is briefly played between innings. A giant clock is all the scoreboard shows.

What is much harder to track remains significantly more problematic. When players go home, the expectation is they will remain there. They are part of the honor system. The outcome of the season may be dependent on how well they participate.

“None of us want to get it,” Stephen Strasburg said. “Naturally, we want to avoid large crowds and being in situations that might get us exposed to it. I’m sure if you ask a lot of guys around here, when it’s the middle of the season, it’s like clockwork. You go home when you’re done, and you come back the next day. It’s not like you’re spending a lot of time doing things out around town.

“It’s a crazy time right now, and if we can go out there, provide some relief for the fans, something fun for them to watch on TV, that’s the big purpose here.”

More than a week of workouts are over. Just more than a week remains before games begin to count in this 60-game experiment. Fits and starts seem inevitable throughout the season. New ways to celebrate are coming into place, old ways to act are being pushed out. And whether it can all be held together for months remains in doubt.

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Nationals’ need for left-handed relief help may give Seth Romero a chance

Nationals’ need for left-handed relief help may give Seth Romero a chance

The Nationals’ left-handed bullpen options took another step backward Wednesday when Sam Freeman had to exit the game in New York after throwing 14 pitches.

Freeman has a flexor strain, according to manager Davey Martinez, and will have an MRI on Friday when the team returns to Washington. He also told Martinez he “felt something pop” in his left elbow during the outing. Freeman had Tommy John surgery in 2010. Flexor strains and such “pop” descriptions are often precursors to UCL tears which then require the now-famous procedure.

So, the Nationals need left-handed bullpen help. It could come from the taxi squad and via one of their key prospects, Seth Romero.

Sean Doolittle is not pitching well. He’s been removed from high- and medium-leverage situations. Roenis Elías was placed on the 60-day injured list July 26 because of a left elbow flexor strain. Elías can return to the team 45 days after being placed on the 60-day injured list. It’s one of the oddities in the 2020 season.

For now, it’s Doolittle, and no one else. Will Harris, expected to be activated Thursday, is very effective against left-handed hitters. But, the Nationals will need more than just Harris.

Which is where Romero could come in. He was the team’s first-round pick in 2017. He was sent home from spring training in 2018 for an undisclosed violation of team rules before needing Tommy John surgery later that year. He worked at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg this year before being added to the Nationals’ five-man taxi squad for their first 2020 regular-season road trip.

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Romero’s service-time clock will not be affected if he is placed on the active roster. Any player making his debut after the sixth day of the season will not receive credit for a full year, allowing the organization to retain six full years of control before a player can become a free agent.

The Nationals have 39 players on their 40-man roster. So, adding Romero is not a problem in that regard.

However, the team is jammed when it comes to their 28-man active roster. Freeman will be placed on the injured list, creating a spot for Harris. That’s a clean swap. But, another player would have to be removed to make room for Romero to join the active roster.

Two options seem to exist: reliever Ryne Harper or utilityman Wilmer Difo.

Harper allowed five runs in his inning Wednesday night against the Mets. He is repetitive to a degree. The case for him to remain was made in his earlier appearances when Harper started the year with five clean outings. He’s been hit hard since.

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Previously signing Josh Harrison means Difo could be an option for removal from the active roster. Prospect Luis Garcia, on the taxi squad like Romero, is looming if the team needs a multi-positional player in case of emergency (though Garcia is not on the 40-man roster, which would complicate him getting to the active roster this season).

What’s clear is the Nationals need to do something. And, that could be moving Romero into the mix.

“I’m going to talk to Mike [Rizzo] and see what the gameplan is moving forward,” Martinez said. “Obviously, we got to keep getting Doolittle right, then we’ll see what happens. I like the way Seth’s been throwing the baseball. He threw the other day and he threw really well. Maybe he does get an opportunity. That’s something I’m going to sit with Mike about and see what we come up with.”

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Will Juan Soto follow the same path as Mookie Betts?

Will Juan Soto follow the same path as Mookie Betts?

The gasps came again in New York on Wednesday, this time when Juan Soto ripped his hands in and then through a slider which meandered up and inside. The resulting fly ball went 466 feet to right field, confusing camera operators and announcers alike. Nationals play-by-play man Bob Carpenter, calling road games from Nationals Park, wasn’t quite sure where the ball went or landed because it left camera view. The Mets’ broadcasting crew had a better view in Citi Field. Ron Darling uttered a precise summary while the ball traveled: “Whoa.”

Soto hit a 463-foot home run two days earlier which drew similar awe. Darling said then he had never seen a ball hit to that part of Citi Field -- dead center beyond the iconic rising apple. And, what Soto is doing overall is rarely seen. He’s hit two of the five longest home runs in Citi Field since 2015 (Nos. 3 and 5, respectively) in three days. He tied Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Robinson with 60 home runs before turning 22 years old thanks to the two he hit Wednesday night. Only four players -- Mel Ott, Tony Conigliaro, Eddie Matthews and Ronald Acuña Jr. -- have more before that age. Soto turns 22 on Oct. 25. He is being shorted 109 games this season because of the abbreviated schedule and his late start in it. Yet, he’s still chasing down history.

The short season makes comparison points for his future fluid. However, he is running steady with the early days of one player in particular: Mookie Betts. The far-away question for the Nationals is whether their paths when no longer under team control will go the same.

First, to now. Soto’s first home run Wednesday prompted a response from the official NASA Twitter account when it was asked to locate the launch to right field (“We'll look for it when we get back to the Moon in 2024. Cool?”). But, there was a detail attached to his second home run which may be more telling of his actual ability.

Left-handed Mets reliever Chasen Shreve was able to get Soto to rollover a fastball away for a double play in the third inning. Left-handed pitchers typically try for this precise outcome from Soto by pitching him outside. He often foils it by not taking the bait and instead taking a walk or pushing the ball the other way. Against Shreve, Soto left his principles: he swung at a pitch outside of the strike zone and did so with more of a hook swing than one designed to drive the ball somewhere between left-center field and right-center field. Stay through the middle and good things will happen. It’s a mantra for him. He vacated the idea, then pulled his helmet off at first base and bounced it off the ground following the double play.

He faced another left-handed pitcher in his next at-bat. Justin Wilson tried the same approach as Shreve. He was throwing away, but not far enough. A fastball caught the outside portion of the plate. Soto had cleared his head, drove through the pitch, and hit an opposite-field home run. That, more than distance, shows mental genius at 21 years old.

“He makes in-game adjustments better than any young hitter I’ve ever seen,” Davey Martinez said.

RELATED: SOTO BLASTS LONGEST HOME RUN OF HIS CAREER AGAIN

Now, to the future, via the past. Betts came up as a 21-year-old in Boston. Soto is 21. Betts played half a season at that age, moved to 19th in American League MVP voting the following year, then put his name among the elite his third season when he finished second in MVP voting. He also won a Gold Glove and went to the All-Star Game. Betts pulled together a 9.5 bWAR season in 2016 as a 23-year-old outfielder.

Soto finished second to Acuña Jr. in National League Rookie of the Year voting in his first season. He ascended to ninth in NL MVP voting as a 20-year-old via a 4.6 bWAR season. His current OPS is 1.444. It won’t last. And, this is not a full season to chase Betts’ MVP-runner-up numbers. It does indicate further ascension.

It is also another year of Soto’s service-time clock. The Nationals hold team control of Soto until 2025. Next year he will again make a pittance relative to his peers, when he receives a slight raise from the $629,400 he is making this year. The following year, 2022, he can start to cash in  via arbitration. His salary will progressively climb year after year from there -- with several chances to set a record for arbitration pay should his play be maintained.

The rub arrives in 2025. Soto can become a free agent that year. So can Victor Robles. And, Soto is represented by Scott Boras, who is loathe to do anything other than enter free agency with his clients.

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So, the Nationals will eventually be faced with a similar decision the Boston Red Sox needed to make with Betts: can they afford their star? If not, should he be traded?

Boston was in a bind. It dumped current cash (David Price) and future cash (Betts) in exchange for three prospects. In essence, it was an organizational reboot.

The Nationals don’t tend to operate that way. They have not been forced to rebuild since the initial buildup from franchise newbie to contender was completed. They also do not want to exceed the Competitive Balance Tax whenever possible, pick singular spots for big contracts and are yet to approach Soto about an extension. Needing to choose between him and Robles complicates the process further.

So, for now, maybe it’s best to watch the mammoth homers, listen to out-of-town announcers react with shock, then giggle at tweets from NASA. Four more years of Soto in Washington are guaranteed. Nothing beyond that is.

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