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Nats open new $150 million spring training site with walk-off win

Nats open new $150 million spring training site with walk-off win

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Bryce Harper drove in the first run, the rain stayed away and a festive crowd saw a game-ending homer. All in all, a nice start on opening day for The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.

Shared by the Houston Astros and Washington, the teams met Tuesday in the first spring training game at the new $150 million complex. The Nationals won 4-3 on Michael Taylor's drive with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

The biggest draw for many of the 5,987 fans seemed to be the racing president mascots, who made the trip south from Nationals Park. Instead of Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, the opener featured William Taft, Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge.

"I miss Teddy, George and Jeff," said David Blackwood, who made the trip across Florida from Sarasota for the game. "These are like the spring training presidents. They haven't made the squad yet."

There are still more permanent fixtures that need work at the park that holds over 7,000 -- some concession stands won't open for a few more games, not all bathrooms had hot water. But what was accomplished in 15 months since the ballpark's approval is being lauded by players, coaches, fans and Commissioner Rob Manfred, who was in attendance.

"The stadium bowl itself is absolutely first rate, but I think the back fields and practice areas are amazing, as well," Manfred said.

The Astros and Nationals each have one back field that mimics the dimensions of their home ballpark, plus five other full-sized practice fields apiece.

Along with clubhouses that rival most of those at major league ballparks in both size and number of televisions, the Nationals' side of the facility also features a training pool, which began to be filled on Monday.

"A diving board would have been nice -- maybe a slide," joked Jeremy Guthrie, who threw the first pitch of the game after morning rain cleared out.

For the record, Daniel Murphy got the first hit and Carlos Beltran launched the first homer. Harper doubled home the first run.

Players raved about field conditions, which offered dimensions of 335, 406 and 336 feet from left to right. The bullpens are down the lines behind the outfield wall, with a green berm where fans can stretch out and watch the game.

Beyond the left field berm resides the Houston executive offices, which Derek Norris hit on one bounce for a home run. From the upper level seats fans can glimpse several of the back fields.

Taylor's homer over the left field foul pole marked the first spring training game in West Palm Beach since 1997. The Nationals' franchise once called West Palm Beach home, back when they were the Montreal Expos. The Braves and Expos shared a complex in town for years.

The Nationals explored options on both coasts of Florida as a replacement for their previous spring training complex in Viera, two hours north of their new residence. The Astros moved from Kissimmee, more than two hours away.

About 15 minutes from the new ballpark in Jupiter is Roger Dean Stadium, shared by the Cardinals and Marlins.

"I love the idea of spring training baseball in southeastern Florida," said Manfred, who has an apartment close to West Palm Beach. "I actually think it's not just personal, it's good for the game to have two centers of baseball in the state of Florida. It allows teams to keep their travel time down, but you do need a certain number of teams to make it all work."

While in Viera, bus rides of two and three hours were the norm for the Nationals. This spring 27 of their 34 games will be played in Palm Beach County. Three more will be played two counties north at the Mets' facility in Port St. Lucie, less than an hour away.

"Riding on the bus for four hours is not that fun so having fewer trips like that is definitely better," said Taylor, who set up his winning homer by throwing out a runner at the plate to end the top of the ninth.

There is one potential pothole that Nationals manager Dusty Baker didn't face when the club camped in Viera. In West Palm Beach and the surrounding area, there are plenty of attractions to occupy a player's time away from the ballpark -- and some of those places remain open until 5 a.m.

"We were in Viera, there wasn't anybody staying open," Baker said. "It was nice, but, you know, it was easy to get your rest."

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Budweiser’s New Super Bowl Ad Stars Washington Nationals

Budweiser’s New Super Bowl Ad Stars Washington Nationals

I think we can all agree that besides the actual game itself, there’s nothing fans look forward to more than the Super Bowl commercials.  

And as the Super Bowl draws near, the commercials have begun to unwind. 

Budweiser released its Super Bowl LIV spot featuring the World Series champion Washington Nationals on Thursday. 

The commercial, titled “Typical American,” is an Ode to the American Spirit and highlights various real-life stories of community, ambition and progress that inspire and bring people together. 

The commercial features a clip of Anthony Rendon celebrating with the trophy in the locker room while being doused in beer. 

The ad reads "Typical American always celebrating with their typical American beer." 

The spot is set to debut in the fourth quarter of the game. 

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Nationals Spring Training Preview: Outfielders locked into their roles

Nationals Spring Training Preview: Outfielders locked into their roles

When the Nationals host their first full-squad Spring Training workout Feb. 18, they’ll do so with a couple questions about who will crack the starting lineup on Opening Day.

None of those questions, however, will involve the outfield. Juan Soto, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton are all locked into their respective positions, making for a drama-free spring among the starting outfielders.

But that doesn’t mean each outfielder isn’t going into Grapefruit League play with something to prove. Here’s a snapshot of the Nationals’ outfield situation as they prepare for the trip down to West Palm Beach.

All ages listed are as of Opening Day.

Left Field – Juan Soto

Age: 21

2019 Stats: 150 games, .282/.401/.548, .949 OPS, 153 hits, 34 home runs, 110 RBIs, 110 runs scored, 108 walks, 132 strikeouts and 12 stolen bases

Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2022, free agent after 2024

Following the departure of Anthony Rendon via free agency, the onus is now on Juan Soto to step up and be the premier hitter in the middle of the Nationals’ lineup.

Soto has certainly shown that he’s willing to embrace being a star, racking up clutch hits in the playoffs and exuding confidence in interviews. The big question now is how he will respond to being pitching around without Rendon in front of him and no major offensive threat behind him.

“[Rendon] was a really good piece,” Soto said at the Nationals' annual WinterFest event. “But, like I said with [Bryce] Harper, it’s not just one player. It’s about team. The best team who wins. I feel really bad because he’s gone, but we’ve got to keep going.”

As a patient hitter who’s lauded for his eye for the strike zone, Soto certainly has the tools to embrace the Barry Bonds treatment. This will be a different approach then he’s been used to taking, though. Last year, Soto became the youngest player since intentional walks were first tracked in 1955 to draw over 100 walks in a season with fewer than five of them being intentional.

That number is certain to go up in 2020, as will the number of walks that won’t be logged as intentional but will include very few pitches to hit. Soto will be forced to remain selective without getting frustrated and swinging at pitches outside the zone. He's done that well up to this point, ranking 12th in the majors in swing rate on pitches outside the zone (23.4 percent, just behind the Los Angeles Dodgers' Max Muncy and ahead of Rendon) last season. But it’s a tough adjustment for any hitter, never mind one as young as Soto.

“I’ve been learning -- Howie Kendrick helped me a lot,” Soto said. “He always told me they don’t want to throw to you, just take, take, take until you see your pitch. That helped me a lot to get deep in my counts, then they are going to come right at me. I think that’s what helped me to get my pitch more. Because they’ve been really wild, and if I swing at that, they just keep going. So, just stop, wait for my pitch and get deep in the count.”

Center Field – Victor Robles

Age: 22

2019 Stats: 155 games, .255/.326/.419, .745 OPS, 139 hits, 17 home runs, 65 RBIs, 86 runs scored, 35 walks, 140 strikeouts and 28 stolen bases

Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2022, free agent after 2024

A Gold Glove finalist who stole nearly 30 bases and finished sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting, Victor Robles enjoyed a successful first full season in the majors by several measures.

The next step in his development will be to improve his production at the plate, as only 14 qualified hitters had lower on-base and slugging percentages last season. If he can improve his plate discipline while adding some power, Robles has the potential to be an X-factor in the Nationals’ lineup.

“He’s got power, he got the ability to drive the ball in the gaps, he’s got speed on the basepaths,” hitting coach Kevin Long said at WinterFest. “He can fine-tune some things. I think his strike zone discipline can get better and I think he can learn from what pitchers did to him last year and make those adjustments accordingly.”

Robles swung at 30.6 percent of pitches outside the zone in 2019, only a shade above the league average. But he only made contact on 63.9 percent of those pitches (league average is 66 percent) while posting an overall swinging strike rate of 10.5 percent (league average is 9.5).

Yet the biggest thing to watch surrounding Robles this spring just might be his contract status. Given that he hasn’t hit the ceiling projected of him as a prospect, Robles could be a candidate for a contract extension that buys out his arbitration years and a year or two of free agency.

Soto is the obvious candidate that the team would want to lock up the most, but he’s a client of Scott Boras and has already shown that he can play at an MVP-caliber level. The cost would also be enormous if the Nationals wanted to re-sign him. Robles, on the other hand, hasn’t shown that kind of promise at the major-league level—yet.

It would be worth a conversation for Mike Rizzo to approach Robles and gauge his interest in signing a seven- or eight-year deal. Though reworking a contract with Robles would give him a substantial raise—and present a calculated risk for Washington—the Nationals could put themselves in a position in a year or two where Robles is far outplaying his salary with the added benefit of being locked into their lineup deep into his prime.

Right Field – Adam Eaton

Age: 31

2019 Stats: 151 games, .279/.365/.428, .792 OPS, 158 hits, 15 home runs, 49 RBIs, 103 runs scored, 65 walks, 106 strikeouts and 15 stolen bases

Contract: $9.5 million salary in 2020, $10.5 million team option with $1.5 million buyout for 2021

After starting his Nationals tenure with back-to-back, injury-plagued seasons, Adam Eaton showed he could stay healthy by playing his first full season since 2016.

The book has been written on Eaton: He’s a speedy outfielder who reaches base at a solid clip and stands there for the hitters behind him to drive in. The question at this stage of his career is whether he will change that narrative and add a new element to his game or remain the steady hitter he’s developed into.

Eaton certainly shouldn’t be relied on to hit for power. His 15 home runs last season marked a career-high. But perhaps he’ll be able to take a page out of Rendon’s book and drive balls into the gaps to generate more doubles and triples. Eaton has hit 25+ doubles four times in his career and led the American League in triples twice while a member of the Chicago White Sox.

On the surface, Eaton doesn’t seem like the type of hitter who could add that element to hit game. His average exit velocity of 86.6 mph ranks among the bottom third of major leaguers. But the right fielder isn’t nicknamed “Spanky” for nothing. He sprays his hits all over the field and set a career-best mark with just a 39.6 groundball percentage last season, so he’s putting the ball in the air.

A 35-double, 10-triple season would be a good benchmark for Eaton to aim for. His top-end speed has been limited because of his 2017 knee surgery, but if he can put the ball in the gaps while staying healthy and continuing to bridge the gap between Trea Turner at the leadoff spot and the heart of the Nationals’ order, their lineup immediately looks much more dynamic.

Fourth Outfielder – Michael A. Taylor

Age: 29

2019 Stats: 53 games, .250/.305/.364, .669 OPS, 22 hits, 1 home run, 3 RBIs, 10 runs scored, 7 walks, 34 strikeouts and 6 stolen bases

Contract: $3.325 million salary in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2021, free agent after 2021

After avoiding arbitration and agreeing to a salary north of $3 million for 2020, Michael Taylor is all but assured a roster spot heading into Spring Training. Taylor will resume his fourth-outfielder duties, subbing in late in games as a defensive replacement and filling in when the starters need a day off.

He’s had ample opportunities to prove himself as an everyday starter, but aside from an impressive 2017 campaign in which he hit 19 homers and posted an .806 OPS, Taylor hasn’t been able to hold down a starting job. That doesn’t mean he won’t play an important role on this club.

Taylor was a Gold Glove finalist in 2018 at center field and is right up there with Robles as the two best defensive players on the team. He can play all three outfield positions and will be the first name called should one of the starters be forced to miss some time.

Don’t be surprised if Taylor gets off to a hot start in Spring Training. He’s a bit of a Grapefruit League star, just ask his batting averages over the last five springs: .360, .258, .315, .453, .323. Yet Taylor has never been able to carry that over into the regular season, as his offensive success has always stayed behind in Florida. He'll work on cutting on his hefty strikeout rate as he has in years past, but perhaps that will finally come to fruition after he spent most of last season working on exactly that in AA-Harrisburg.

Fifth Outfielder – Andrew Stevenson

Age: 25

2019 Stats: 30 games, .367/.486/.467, .953 OPS, 11 hits, 0 home runs, 0 RBIs, 4 runs scored, 6 walks, 11 strikeouts and 0 stolen bases

Contract: League minimum in 2020, arbitration eligible in 2022, free agent after 2024

Perhaps the outfielder with the most to prove this spring, Andrew Stevenson isn’t a guarantee to break camp with the team when it heads back up to D.C. at the end of March.

His fate is well out of his hands, since several other bigger roster decisions will probably determine where he starts the season. The Nationals plan to employ a five-man bench, with one spot going to the back-up catcher, another reserved for Taylor, and one saved for whoever sits between Howie Kendrick, Starlin Castro and Eric Thames.

The first factor that could change things is the future of Ryan Zimmerman. If the team brings him back, as it’s expected to do, then that eliminates another bench spot. The other major question mark is third base, where Carter Kieboom and Asdrúbal Cabrera will battle it out in Spring Training. If Kieboom wins the job, then Cabrera shifts to a utility role and Stevenson is like playing in AA-Harrisburg or AAA-Fresno.

Even if Kieboom is deemed not ready and sent down to the minors, Stevenson would be pitted against Wilmer Difo for that final bench spot. Even then, Difo is out of options while Stevenson has one remaining, so Washington would likely send Stevenson down anyway to maintain roster flexibility.

The only way both Stevenson and Difo make the team is if Zimmerman doesn’t return and Cabrera wins the starting job at third. With the Nationals still likely to retain Zimmerman and Kieboom being given every opportunity to win the gig at third, the odds of that happening are slim.

Thames has played both corner outfield spots in his career and Taylor is the obvious candidate to fill in at center. So the Nationals don’t need a fifth outfielder on their 26-man roster. He proved his worth as an excellent pinch hitter last year, but Stevenson is still likely to join recent signees Carlos Tocci and Mac Williamson in the minor-league ranks as outfield depth for the season.

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