Nationals

Nationals

Shawn Kelley was short-haired and happy in Las Vegas. He and his wife, Kelsey, were in town during the Winter Meetings to visit friends, mill about with baseball people and hunt for a future employer. Kelley is entering his age-35 season with an arm that would win a science fair. He’d like to play another year, and why not? Kelley finished last season with a 145 ERA-plus and 0.898 WHIP in 54 games. That’s plenty to earn another bullpen deal.

It won’t be in Washington. Kelley’s mid-season glove spike guaranteed that. The next day, general manager Mike Rizzo uttered his interesting, “You’re either with us or against us” ultimatum when discussing why he jettisoned Kelley despite his recent personal uptick for a bullpen in need of help.

Moving Kelley out by designating him for assignment before he was traded to Oakland became a rash decision. As did sending out Brandon Kintzler. It also set a fresh tone. Rizzo wasn’t going to tolerate anything perceived or real which put his first-year manager, Davey Martinez, in a player-generated negative light. The moves also began a refresh.

Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez departed. Ryan Madson was also moved. Tanner Roark was traded in the offseason. Matt Wieters is not returning. Bryce Harper is unlikely to be back. Those eight players -- Kelley, Kintzler, Murphy, Madson, Gonzalez, Roark, Wieters and Harper -- represent large workloads during the last two seasons (and even prior). All those innings and at-bats will be spread elsewhere in 2019. A purge of sorts has happened.

 

Myriad reasons for the shift exist. Rizzo and Martinez wanted to create a more flexible roster. They wanted a younger roster. They wanted a general mood change.

The average age of those eight players, even when including the recently 26-year-old Harper, is 33. Those pitchers threw 930 ⅓ innings the last two years. That’s 32 percent of the innings pitched the last two seasons. Those are now available.

Players likely to procure replacement work are much younger. Patrick Corbin takes over for Gonzalez, a reduction of four years. Victor Robles inherits Harper’s spot, a reduction of five years. Kyle Barraclough is swapped in for Kintzler, a reduction of six years. Wander Suero can be viewed as a Kelley replacement; he’s seven years younger. Trevor Rosenthal is a decade younger than Madson. Yan Gomes was born a year before Wieters. Splitting the ages of Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick produces a 30-year-old player. Daniel Murphy is 33. Another three-year pull back. That’s 36 years rolled off the roster clock.

“If you look to see what we're doing, we're trying to get more athletic,” Martinez said at the Winter Meetings. “We've got younger players coming up. Two catchers that can move pretty good. We've got Robles, Michael [A. Taylor], [Adam] Eaton who is going to be healthy, [Juan] Soto moves pretty good in left field. We're trying to get more athletic and change the game.”

The Nationals were slow and inflexible last season. Martinez felt stifled at times when he searched for options to spur in-game action. He thinks this roster allows more variation. When explaining, he again chimes in with that word, “athletic.”

“For me right now we're getting more athletic,” Martinez said. “So we're going to do different things, whether it's hitting and running, bunting a little bit more. But we're fundamentally going to learn to play the game and play it right. I'm looking forward to it. I think we have the players that are able to hit the ball out of the park [as well as] hitting doubles and bunting.”

The Nationals are in a curious philosophical spot. Their hitting coach, Kevin Long, is among the patriarchs of the launch-angle era. He wants hitters to go pull-side, up and over the shift. Martinez emphasizes staying through the middle of the field. He wants line drives and power to all fields to come through that pursuit (hello, Juan Soto). The organization wants fewer strikeouts. Melding these pursuits will be a challenge.

The clubhouse will also be different. Gonzalez’s womp-womp postgame press conferences and mood are gone. Roark’s edge locker will be occupied by someone else. Veteran spots in the back previously held by Murphy and Wieters will be filled by new players. Harper’s double-locker setup to the left of Robles and Soto will be turned over for the first time in six years.

 

How dramatic is the recent roster shift? Ten position players and six pitchers played Opening Day in 2016. Only four of those 16 -- Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Michael A. Taylor -- remain on the team.

Washington needed change. It’s here.

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