Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Jim Riggleman has presided over a Nats camp lacking in the usual drama.
Overwhelmingly this spring, there has been a common sentiment among all those different interested parties: This Nationals camp feels different than previous ones.
What's the difference? One particular phrase seems to keep coming up: There's a more professional tone to the proceedings.
Indeed, it does feel like there's less need for basic instruction and teaching this spring. Players are using their time simply to get their work in and get themselves ready for the season.
It helps that the roster boasts far more veterans than in the past, guys like Matt Stairs, Jerry Hairston, Rick Ankiel and Alex Cora. It also helps that several key young players like Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman have rock-solid work habits.
We're finally seeing the fruits of Mike Rizzo's offseason labors up close and in person. The Nats GM has talked plenty about the importance of adding good "character" guys to the roster. Well, here's what it looks like.
On the practice fields, guys jog between stations with a purpose. When field coordinator Bobby Henley blasts his air horn to signal the start of a new drill, everyone's ready to go, no delays.
In the clubhouse, players have a good time and enjoy each other's company, but not at the expense of ignoring the task at hand. No one's showing up late to work or just in the nick of time. No one's trying to seize control of the room and draw unnecessary attention to himself.
More than anything, there's far more talent dispersed around that room than there has been in any previous version of this franchise's camp. As one player who's been around for a while now put it earlier today: "We actually have a major-league team. Finally."
When camp breaks in a month and the club heads north for Opening Day, it's a safe bet that the team charter will boast 25 legitimate major leaguers. That may not sound like a big deal, but it hasn't always been the case.
Think about some of the names who have managed to squeeze their way onto the Nationals' Opening Day roster over the years. Willy Taveras. Garrett Mock. Anderson Hernandez. Mike Hinckley. Rob Mackowiak. Odalis Perez. Chris Snelling. Jerome Williams. Damian Jackson. Felix Rodriguez. Joe Horgan. J.J. Davis.
That's not going to be the case in 2011. In previous years, the Nationals often had to scramble late in spring to fill out roster spots. This year, there are going to be a lot of players deserving of a spot on the 25-man roster who just can't crack it.
There's another thing missing from this camp that was all too present in previous ones: Drama.
Every year since the franchise arrived in D.C., there has been some sort of underlying story that threatened to consume spring training and distract from the real task at hand. Endy Chavez getting demoted one week before Opening Day in 2005. Alfonso Soriano refusing to play left field in 2006. Dmitri Young getting signed out of nowhere in 2007. Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge and Mitchell Report culprit Paul Lo Duca joining the team in 2008, then John Patterson getting released in mid-March. The Smiley Gonzalez saga and Jim Bowden's resignation in 2009. Adam Dunn's contract non-negotiations and Elijah Dukes' surprise release last spring.
Those stories might have been great for us reporters looking for material, but they weren't good for a franchise that wasted too much time putting out fires and not enough time preparing for the actual season.
Yep, it's been a really quiet spring training so far. It may not make for great headlines, but it has made for a better working environment.
Will it result in a better won-loss record once the bell rings at the end of March? We'll see. But it certainly puts the Nationals in a position to believe all this professionalism will have a tangible effect on the field.