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Nationals are as close to normal as can be before MLB draft

Nationals are as close to normal as can be before MLB draft

The Nationals’ draft think tank spent much of the last week on multi-hour Zoom calls. Their mechanism to converse about Wednesday’s MLB Draft has changed. Not much else has.

The coronavirus pandemic stalled baseball at all levels. The major-league season never made it out of spring training. The college season was shut down. Many high school games were never played.

But, last year’s work is the core of what will happen in this year’s draft. That remains standard, especially with the draft cut to five rounds. All of the evidence from a player’s college career remains. Some prep work -- the Nationals say they were out and about weeks before the college season was set to begin -- backs the previous work. Yes, high school players carry more risk than normal years. But, otherwise, the information deficit is limited, even with an abnormal spring.

“We were forced to look at video [only] on certain players, but not very many,” Nationals assistant general manager Kris Kline said in a phone interview. “A lot of it was video on players we’ve seen already this year. When it comes to comfort level as far as taking most of the kids in this draft, we’ve seen them.”

RELATED: SEAN DOOLITTLE CALLS LABOR DISPUTE, 'FRUSTRATING'

The Nationals pick 22nd overall in the first round Wednesday night (draft starts at 7 on MLB Network). Odds are they will select a college pitcher. The five-round draft continues Thursday at 5 p.m.

Washington’s minor-league depth is limited, which is often a cyclical result for contending teams. They draft and develop players for direct impact on the major-league club (Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, etc.). Or use past draft pieces (Lucas Giolito, etc.) to bring in a ready-to-go player via trade when chasing postseason spots. The Nationals’ aggressiveness in bringing top-tier young players to the big leagues (Juan Soto and Victor Robles) further drives down the organization’s minor-league ranking. Obviously, a World Series title carries much more value than a fictional minor-league ranking.

But, the Nationals do need a hit, and this limited draft provides a reduction in opportunities to find one. Their last eight first- or supplemental-round picks have done little, which is notable even in a sport where it takes years before the selections typically have an impact. Rendon was the last jackpot. He was drafted in 2011.

One challenge presented by the spring’s cancellations is understanding a player’s awareness. Video can provide evidence of a swing, pitching mechanics or fielding arm strength. It doesn’t reveal in-game nuance, which so much of baseball is predicated on.

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“There’s absolutely nothing that replaces being at the ballpark,” Kline said. “Nothing. You can’t see the internal clock of a middle infielder. Is he positioning other guys? Is he in the right spot at the right time? All these little things. Then the count of the baseball game dictates everything that happens in the course of the game. You can’t see that. You can’t see the game unfold. You can’t sink yourself into everything happening by looking at a video. It’s impossible.”

Otherwise, the Nationals feel prepared. Scouting work from last year has tempered the preparation gap forced by the pandemic this year. Reducing the draft further mitigates any would-be lack of information. Kline said the Nationals are prepared to draft 100 rounds. They will just go through five this week.

“Nothing has really changed as far as the day-to-day,” Kline said. “It’s just been in a different way. A different approach to it.”

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Juan Soto welcomes cardboard cutouts of family to Nationals Park

Juan Soto welcomes cardboard cutouts of family to Nationals Park

As Juan Soto made his return to the Nationals lineup on Wednesday after dealing with a positive COVID-19 test to begin the season, his family was in the stands to cheer him on. Well, sort of.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, no fans are allowed at MLB games. Instead, teams have opted to place cardboard cutouts of supporters in seats throughout the ballpark to make the atmosphere feel a little more normal. So of course, Soto's family was "in attendance" for his first game back in left field as the Nationals star had custom cutouts made. 

In a perfect gesture, Soto greeted his cardboard relatives by slapping an RBI double to left field in his first trip to the plate. Though there was no applause from the seats, you can bet there was plenty of cheering going on wherever they are watching the game.

Soto's connection with his family runs deep, and it was on display throughout the Nationals 2019 World Series run. From getting tackled by his father after his clutch knock in the NL Wild Card Game to having a traveling fan club at the World Series, the Soto's are clearly his No. 1 supporters.

RELATED: AS SOTO RETURNS, BASEBALL IS REMINDED HOW MUCH IT MISSED HIM

So while the pandemic may be keeping them from being there in person, there was no chance Soto was going to return to action without a way to have his family cheer him on.

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Nationals remind fans of Juan Soto's GOAT status, he responds with first-inning RBI double

Nationals remind fans of Juan Soto's GOAT status, he responds with first-inning RBI double

The Nationals were forced to play their first eight games of the 2020 season without 21-year-old phenom Juan Soto, but they finally got him back in the lineup Wednesday just under two weeks after he tested positive for the coronavirus.

Anticipation was building up ahead of his first at-bat and the Nationals’ official Twitter account did what it could to fuel the fire. Before first pitch, the team posted a photo of Soto’s “spray chart” that had the dots shaped like a goat around the field.

Though that may not actually be what Soto’s spray chart looks like, the leftfielder lived up to the “GOAT” status by smacking an RBI double in his first at-bat before making a diving catch the very next inning.

Soto may be a bit behind the rest of the league in terms of racking up at-bats, but he looked just the Soto that posted a .949 OPS last year and earned the distinction of a Gold Glove finalist.

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