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How the Nationals survived baseball’s most exposed bullpen setting

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How the Nationals survived baseball’s most exposed bullpen setting

PHILADELPHIA -- The visiting bullpen in Citizens Bank Park is elevated, exposed and a glaring target.

Relief pitchers can sit on a bench under cover, but that doesn’t protect them from every angle. Hecklers retain a view from either short side of the rectangular configuration. In short, nowhere, and no one, is safe out there.

Merge the bullpen’s open position with some of the sport’s surliest fans and an idea emerges: this could be the most volatile bullpen spot in baseball. Add Bryce Harper leaving Washington for Philadelphia, a three-game series early in the season with both teams competitive and the situation stirs further.

“There’s other bullpens where you’re really close with the fans,” Sean Doolittle told NBC Sports Washington. “I think like Seattle, you’re really close. San Diego they’re right behind you. There’s other ones. Tampa. Oakland.

“But, they call it the City of Brotherly Love for a reason.”

Fans in town have famously booed Santa Claus. Wednesday, they were busy grousing at the home team, even booing relief pitcher Juan Nicasio when he struck out. Nicasio is a career .123 hitter who strikes out half the time. Washington won, 15-1.

Chants of “Juan, you suck!” temporarily spread through the stadium Tuesday -- aimed at Juan Soto, not Nicasio. Monday was mostly spent lauding Harper’s existence.

Meanwhile, various conversations were taking place out in the bullpen. One fan attempted to mock reliever Kyle Barraclough for Harper’s arrival in Philadelphia. Barraclough never played with Harper, nor is he the team’s general manager. He was confused and amused during the series.

“There’s some aspects of the bullpen location that are prevalent in other stadiums, but you add in the fans that are out there yelling at you, what they’re saying, what they’re doing -- kind of relentless in a way,” Barraclough told NBC Sports Washington. “Which, I mean, that’s baseball. You’ll get that. It makes it a more fun environment sometimes as long as it doesn’t get too personal. If those things being said aren’t really hitting home, if they are keeping it light-hearted, ‘You suck. You’re going to give it up,’ that’s fine.”

Doolittle’s situation -- as always -- was different. He grew up a Phillies fan in nearby Tabernacle Township, New Jersey. Important childhood topics included baseball, diners and high school pride. The well-versed fans lurking around the bullpen engaged Doolittle on these subjects during the Nationals’ three days in Philadelphia. 

He was told Lenape and Cherokee High Schools were both superior to where he graduated, Shawnee.

“They were very proud of their high schools and letting me know about it,” Doolittle said.

The All-Star closer attempted to sway diner opinions by stating Medport Diner in Medford, New Jersey -- a 4.0 according to Google reviews -- was the gold standard of south Jersey diners. For wings, the Pic-A-Lilli Inn is king. He shouted such thoughts at those hanging on the railing who vehemently disagreed.

He also had another question for the ticket-bearers present during this first three-game series of 2019 between the Nationals and Phillies: Where were they before?

“I said, ‘Where have you guys been? You weren’t here last year. Were you guys Nationals fans last year? What’s the deal?’” Doolittle said. “He was like, ‘We were here last year.’ I was like, ‘No, you weren’t. Since I’ve been coming here for two years, you guys weren’t here, I promise.’ He said, ‘We were here, we just sat in our seats.’ I thought it was pretty funny.”

The park’s famous “Dollar Dog night” delivered long lines in the stadium and nostalgia for Doolittle. He previously would “crush double-digit” hot dogs when coming as a fan. Tuesday, an old high school friend of his, armed with dollar dogs, shouted down to see if he wanted one Doolittle declined since it was possible he had to work later that night. His friend told him it was 6-1, there’s no way he was going in, have a dog. Doolittle recorded a five-out save in the wild extra-inning win thankful he declined.

In all, the spot invites engagement with a fan base considered rough and passionate. Barraclough said he tries to find whatever cover possible. Matt Grace tries keep a straight face and comfortable distance. Doolittle tries to disarm some fans with his geographical familiarity and willingness to talk back. 

“I know what their shtick is,” Doolittle said. “Doesn’t work on me. I don’t know -- I like to have fun with them. But you do have to do a quick assessment. There are some fans that are way over board. There are some, they’re having a good time and they’re trying to give you a little bit of grief. You can have fun with those people because they’re not taking it too seriously. There are some people you’re just kind of like -- OK, I’m going to go down to the other end of the bullpen for a little while. They’ll scream themselves hoarse. Most of the time, it’s all in good fun. Even here.”

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How Carter Kieboom influences Nationals’ needs in Day 2 at Winter Meetings

How Carter Kieboom influences Nationals’ needs in Day 2 at Winter Meetings

SAN DIEGO -- Stephen Strasburg is back. The rotation is set, at least one through four, and a crab-bucket crawl is ready for the fifth spot. Howie Kendrick signed to play second and first, as well as pinch-hit. Ryan Zimmerman is expected to return. Anthony Rendon remains in limbo.

So, what now?

Day Two at the Winter Meetings for Washington should bring calm. Or at least lesser salvos. The Nationals entered the San Diego soiree with noise around them. Rendon and Strasburg were huge factors in the offseason. Washington is the World Series champion. It, as much as anyone in baseball, was on the marquee when everyone gathered.

Business now is more pragmatic. The Nationals are likely out on Rendon -- despite meager attempts Monday to say they are not -- which means bullpen and second base are at issue. 

Prospect Carter Kieboom is an option at second base. The Nationals began to work him there last offseason and continued to do so throughout 2019 with Triple-A Fresno. Kieboom made limited appearances at third base (10 games, nine starts, four errors) and is not ready to play that position at the major-league level. His work at shortstop in the major leagues showed he’s not ready to play there, either. There’s also no need with Trea Turner under contract.

Which means Kieboom’s future influences possible spending, which influences Rendon -- slightly -- and has a bearing on the bullpen expenditures. 

“He's close,” Davey Martinez said of Kieboom. “After we had him, he went back down to triple A, kept his head up, and played really well, hit well, did some adjustments. He's going to come to Spring Training and get a shot to play different positions. We'll see. We'll see what transpires, but he's a kid that we value very much. We know what he can do with the bat. We've got to figure out a position for him, whether it's second base or third base, but I think that he adds some value and he could help us in the future.”

This is expected and necessary posturing from Martinez. They don’t know where Kieboom should play. They think his bat will play. Can he become a productive hitter and average defender at second base? If so, that’s high value. Could he eventually take over third base? Washington has to consider the notion when tangling with whether to pay Rendon, or, more likely, Josh Donaldson via a shorter contract.

“I really feel that he learned a lot just coming up that short period of time,” Martinez said of Kieboom. “We know what kind of player we think he can be, and like I said, he's learned how to become that player. He went back down, and I've seen a lot of guys that came up and had a rough time that go back down and don't quite put it together. He went back down there and had a really good year in triple A.

“So it's just a learning process for him. ...And the biggest thing I'll tell Carter is that he's a guy that needs to use the whole field when he hits and not to take his at-bats out to the field. It's two different things. You've got to play defense, and then you've got to hit. I think that's something, as a young player, that you need to learn to be consistent up here.”

The organization’s belief in whether Kieboom can do that will factor into its decisions in San Diego. Monday’s Strasburg splash kicked things off. Tuesday is likely to be more about filling gaps than record contracts.

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Anthony Rendon’s future appears set following Stephen Strasburg deal

Anthony Rendon’s future appears set following Stephen Strasburg deal

SAN DIEGO -- On the stage Monday at the Winter Meetings, two key components of Anthony Rendon’s future chatted before the television’s red camera light popped on.

Mike Rizzo and agent Scott Boras passed a final 30 seconds before showtime with small talk, then addressed the first bombastic signing of the Winter Meetings: Stephen Strasburg is returning to the Washington Nationals on a seven-year, $245 million deal. This, for all intents and purposes, ends Rendon’s time with the organization. 

The math creates a crunch. Rizzo tried to maneuver around the reality when on the dais next to Boras, but the reality is Washington does not want to surpass the competitive balance tax, it does not want to blow out payroll, and it has little wiggle room. Rendon moving on is the now an anchor in the offseason.

Washington operates with a big payroll and pocket-lining approach. A seeming dichotomy. It spends just to the edge. Then, it stops. Not too far to go over the tax. Not too far to appear reckless. But always far enough to say, correctly, the organization is a willing spender, a point Rizzo leaned on when asked about Rendon’s future Monday.

“You look at the history of the Nationals and the way we've positioned ourselves and the details of the contract and the way that it's structured, this ownership group has never shied away from putting the resources together to field a championship-caliber club,” Rizzo said. “I don't see them in any way hindering us from going after the elite players in the game.

“I think that Anthony Rendon is, again, one of the players that is most near and dear to my heart, a guy we've drafted, signed, developed, watched turn into a superstar, playoff success, and a huge part of the world championship run that we went on. So he's a guy that we love.

“The ownership has always given us the resources to field a great team, and we're always trying to win, and we're going to continue to do so.”

That is a 141-word non-answer. 

Washington’s managing principal owner Mark Lerner did not help Rizzo’s position before the Winter Meetings by stating the team could bring back only Rendon or Strasburg -- not both. 

“He did?” Rizzo joked. 

He did. Which, naturally, makes reporters curious about the correlation between a statement from ownership and Rizzo’s operating capacity.

“Well, when you look at those comments, and then you look at the structure of this particular deal and the structure of deals we've had getting up to where we are right now, I think Mark realizes that there's ways to fit players in, there's ways that you can field a championship-caliber roster -- and, again, the resources have always been there, so I don't expect that to change,” Rizzo said.

Here, he hopped into the idea Strasburg’s deferred money -- reportedly $80 million to be paid out within three years of the contract’s expiration -- suggesting the manipulation of those numbers keeps Rendon in play for the organization. It’s not enough. Not based on how the Nationals allocate and spend.

Which means they chose. Strasburg or Rendon. They could only have one, and they signed the homegrown pitcher and thanked Rendon for his time.

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