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Patrick Corbin is expected to be a point of separation in the NL East

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Patrick Corbin is expected to be a point of separation in the NL East

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Patrick Corbin’s spring ERA is up to 5.00. Contact on Monday by the Miami Marlins was frequent and loud. Corbin allowed nine hits in five innings. Several outs were hit hard. He’s up to 21 hits allowed in his last 13 innings.

If that sounds alarmist, it shouldn’t. It’s not preferred. It’s also a good time for spring training standards about working on things and feeling good being more important than results. Typically, that is the actual case.

“I felt pretty good,” Corbin said. “Got in a rhythm there in the middle innings. Just upset with one out in the fifth, had the pitcher 0-2 and kind of started a rally for them. But, it was good to keep continuing that pitch count. Felt like the ball was coming out better today.”

Manager Davey Martinez backed Corbin’s assessment. He liked what he saw, though, like spring training caveats, Martinez’s relentlessly positive comments need a bit of buffering when considered.

Corbin stands as the Nationals’ largest risk of the offseason. Their biggest investment in time and money went to the left-handed starter. They also moved early to acquire him in what became such a lagging market Dallas Keuchel remains unemployed on March 18. Paying Corbin $140 million removed the Nationals from the Bryce Harper pursuit. Washington’s pitching depth is limited. The weight is significant.

For the Nationals to have the best rotation in the division -- if not the league -- they need Corbin to be a not-so-distant third in the pecking order. Last year marked a third consecutive year of improvement for Corbin. Much of his success was pinned on a “curveball” which was more of a lower-speed slider.

Match Corbin, 137 ERA-plus in 2018, with the other No. 3 starters in the division: Zack Wheeler in New York, who finished with a 111 ERA-plus in 2018. Nick Pivetta in Philadelphia, 87 ERA-plus last season. Kevin Gausman in Atlanta, a 105 ERA-plus in Baltimore and Atlanta combined. The Nationals paid to have a significant gap between their third-best pitcher and that of the rest of the division.

The same metric showed Max Scherzer (168) trailing two of the top starters in the NL East: Jacob deGrom (216 in a career year) and Aaron Nola (175). Though WAR compares that group more favorably. Nola and deGrom finished at 10.0; Scherzer 9.5. In essence, it’s a wash.

Down a step to second in the rotation: Sean Newcomb at 104 in Atlanta, Noah Syndergaard at 124 in New York, Jake Arrieta 105 in Philadelphia. Stephen Strasburg landed at a career-lowing tying 114 in 2018.

Which is why Corbin is so important. The 1-2 combos around the division are close to the Nationals’ top duo (though an argument can be made for Strasburg’s potential separation; New York would take the same stance with Syndergaard). The third spot in the rotation is an expected gap. The Nationals paid for the premise. Corbin has to deliver it.

Ross stretches to new limits

Joe Ross started a split-squad game Monday in Port St. Lucie, Fla. In the past, this would not be noteworthy. In this camp, it’s a change for Ross.

“We want to stretch him out a little bit,” Martinez said before the game. “See if we can get him three up and downs, but we have to really pay attention to his pitch count. We want him to be around 45, 50 pitches.”

The Nationals continue to evaluate what they will do with the right-hander. He threw 61 pitches Monday in three innings. Prior, he was making one-inning appearances out of the bullpen. Washington could use a “long man” there. It also wants to monitor Ross’ workload this year. So, the question becomes, do they want Ross to be able to make multiple appearances in a week? Or do they want him situated as a starter who begins the season in Fresno as insurance?

“We’re still thinking about that,” Martinez said. “And we’re still thinking about Joe; what’s best for him. It’s hard to say because of his injury. I really still believe he can start. I really do. It would be nice if we can get him a little bit stretched out and see where we’re at.”

Would it be easier to control his workload if he were in a bullpen role?

“It all depends on how you use him in the bullpen and what we leave within the bullpen,” Martinez said. “If he’s going to pitch in the bullpen, then he needs to pitch. I don’t want him just to be a guy who goes out there and throws two innings one day, then [I] can’t use him for two or three days. But we’re going to weigh that here in the next week.”

Zimmerman and how speed kills

Here’s an inning for Ryan Zimmerman on Monday: Infield single; going first-to-third on a single; scoring on a safety squeeze.

Zimmerman, entering his age-35 season, accomplished all of this with maintenance welts from cupping procedures (the welts are a natural byproduct of suctioning from cupping) on both calves.

He’s appeared in nine major-league spring training games this season after playing in just one last spring. A week of games remains. Zimmerman’s spring training playing time should be in line with past years when the Nationals’ time in Florida is finished.

More moves

The Nationals made another round of cuts Monday when they optioned starting pitcher Austin Voth, reliever Jimmy Cordero, starter Kyle McGowin and reliever Tanner Rainey to Triple-A Fresno.

Reliever J.J. Hoover and outfielder Hunter Jones were re-assigned to minor-league camp.

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Howie Kendrick has no sympathy for Astros, criticizes Rob Manfred's handling of scandal

Howie Kendrick has no sympathy for Astros, criticizes Rob Manfred's handling of scandal

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Howie Kendrick has no sympathy for the Houston Astros.

Asked on Tuesday morning if he -- a veteran about to play his 15th season -- was concerned about how Houston’s scandal reflected on baseball at large, Kendrick explained his view in simple and direct terms. He also expressed his displeasure with Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred’s handling of the situation.

“It doesn’t put baseball in a good light, and the Commissioner really hasn’t done a great job of trying to diffuse the situation, honestly,” Kendrick said. “But if you cheat, you cheat. There’s no fairness in that. Obviously you have a choice. You either choose to do it, or you don’t. And obviously they chose to do it, and they should have to live with those consequences. Nobody’s going to have any remorse for you. 

“And going out and putting out public service announcements and things like that, I don’t think that’s really cool. You got caught doing something. I think you should just be quiet, go about your business and let your play talk. If you weren’t doing it, and you’re honest that you weren’t doing it. We’ll find out this season. They’ve got a lot of really good players, and obviously they win without doing a lot of that stuff. The fact they actually got caught doing it, it just makes them look that much worse.”

Responses in the Nationals’ clubhouse have varied. Some players, like Starlin Castro, chose not to comment on the Astros’ situation. Ryan Zimmerman reiterated his concern about the integrity of the game being questioned. Max Scherzer advised reporters to walk down the hall and ask the Astros questions about their cheating. Sean Doolittle worried about what jobs may have been lost because of the cheating.

Kendrick was also asked if the 2017 title should be taken from the Astros. 

“I haven’t really thought about it that much. I’ve heard a lot of guys say they should take it away, let them keep their rings and stuff like that. That’s not my job. That’s the commissioner’s job. But with all the details out there, obviously it went from the top to bottom. As a player, some of those guys probably didn’t want to do it. But who do you go to at that point? You either follow along, even if you don’t agree with it, because you really don’t have an avenue to go to. I do believe there were guys that didn’t want to do it, but what are you going to do about it when 90 percent of the people were doing it. That’s all I got to say about that.”

With that, Kendrick was done and subjected to jabs from his teammates for his Forrest Gump-esque closing remark. No matter the end, he can be added to the list of those irritated with the Astros, and the commissioner. 

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Davey Martinez provides some clarity on the Nationals’ infield plans

Davey Martinez provides some clarity on the Nationals’ infield plans

When Davey Martinez fills in his lineup card on Opening Day, there are going to be many different ways he will be able to pencil in his infielders.

The Nationals manager provided some insight Monday on how he’ll be narrowing down those decisions. In his daily press conference with reporters, Martinez said he wants offseason addition Starlin Castro to focus on second base at least for the first few weeks of spring training.

“Right now, I just want him playing second base,” Martinez said. “Maybe towards the end of spring we’ll get him over to [third base] for a few games. He was put over there last year and he did well. We looked at his numbers and he did well over there. But I want to keep him at second base for right now, let him get his feet underneath him and get him going.”

If things go according to plan for the Nationals, top prospect Carter Kieboom will show promise at third base and Castro won’t need to get many reps there. But just in case Kieboom is slow to adapt to the position, Asdrúbal Cabrera will work out at third with Howie Kendrick slated to do so as well later this spring.

In the meantime, Kendrick will play primarily first and second base, Martinez said. However, the Nationals have a logjam at first with Eric Thames and Ryan Zimmerman already projecting as complementary platoon partners. It’s not yet apparent how Kendrick would get regular at-bats if Castro plays second every day and the Thames/Zimmerman combo is healthy entering the season.

To his credit, Castro is willing to play anywhere Martinez needs him. “I’m going to prepare…If you want me to play at third, if you want me to play at second,” he said in his first media scrum Sunday. “I just expect to be there, to try to keep myself healthy, and just play hard and do my best every day.”

Most of these comments from Martinez come as no surprise and only further emphasize the bigger question: How will Martinez slot whoever starts into his daily lineups?

If Juan Soto moves up to third in the order, the occupant of the cleanup spot is far from a given. Thames seems the most obvious candidate to do so on the days he starts, but that would mean the Nationals would bat three lefties in a row with Adam Eaton slated in at second.

Kendrick could be an option, yet he doesn’t have a spot in the field and won’t be expected to play every day at 36 years old. The only other candidate appears to be Castro, who hasn’t been much of a power hitter in his career but enjoyed a second-half surge in 2019 that was fueled by an emphasis on driving the ball.

Martinez is also entertaining the idea of pushing Trea Turner back from the leadoff spot and hitting him third. Just entertain the idea of this lineup for a second.

CF Victor Robles

RF Adam Eaton

SS Trea Turner

LF Juan Soto

2B Starlin Castro/Howie Kendrick

1B Ryan Zimmerman/Eric Thames

3B Carter Kieboom/Asdrúbal Cabrera

C Kurt Suzuki/Yan Gomes

Pitcher

This lineup is immediately deeper than the previous one with Soto staying at fourth and Castro being pushed back to fifth. The Nationals could then tinker with the order of the 5-6-7 hitters based on how they perform to start the season.

The idea only works, however, if Victor Robles shows signs of cutting down on his strikeout rate and getting on base more often. The centerfielder’s sprint speed of 29.3 feet-per-second is only a tick behind Turner’s rate of 30.4, so the Nationals wouldn’t lose the valuable base-stealing threat they’ve had atop the lineup over the last few years. It’s just a question of whether he takes a step forward in his sophomore season.

As for his veteran catching duo of Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes, Martinez noted that Gomes would be getting more playing time this season. The Nationals saw Gomes hit well down the stretch last year after receiving regular playing time while Suzuki nursed an elbow injury.

 “I like to think that we can do the same thing [as last year], but we got to be very careful,” Martinez said. “I know Suzuki looks good, he’s ready to go. But we got to be conscious of his injuries last year.”

Martinez suggested using a system where the catchers would take turns making a majority of the starts each week. He said that Suzuki would be working more with starter Patrick Corbin this spring to help them build a rapport after Gomes was the left-hander’s primary backstop in 2019.

There are still plenty more questions that will need to be answered before Martinez can start on that Opening Day lineup card, but his comments Monday provided an important step toward determining what those questions will be.

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