WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Just over a week into Grapefruit League action, the 2021 Nationals are taking shape in Florida. General manager Mike Rizzo spoke on the state of the team on Monday, ahead of its seventh Spring Training game.
Soto, Turner extension talks
Questions of potential contract extensions for Juan Soto and Trea Turner remain a hot topic in Spring Training. Last month, Turner said he would like to play his entire career with the Nationals, and Soto noted he is thinking about baseball -- not a potential contract -- after drawing comparisons to Fernando Tatis Jr.’s 14-year, $340 million megadeal with the Padres.
“We’ve discussed internally with ownership about it,” Rizzo said. “We’re in the midst of making decisions on what a timeframe would look like. … We certainly have made and will make a long-term extension offer to both players sometime in the near future.”
Call to the ‘pen
In addition to determining a fifth starter, the Nats also have to weigh an abundance of options for their bullpen. There is a possibility they could carry nine relievers if all the starters are not stretched out for Opening Day.
“We like the depth of our bullpen,” Rizzo said. “We've got a lot of veteran presence there, and a lot of good, young, optionable arms that we believe are going to help us throughout the season. I believe it's probably the best depth that we've had at this time of year in quite a few years here.”
Lineup protection leads to offensive production
With one of the most dominant hitters in their lineup, the Nationals added protection around Soto in the batting order this offseason. Newcomers Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber already have demonstrated their power by going yard, Ryan Zimmerman has been hitting homers in his return and Starlin Castro is back from a right wrist injury that ended his 2020 season.
“We want a long, deep lineup that we can do some damage [with] -- not only in the middle of the lineup protecting Juan, but at the bottom of the lineup,” Rizzo said. “We need to score more runs than we did last year and manufacture more runs -- I think that’s going to be an important way for us to win games. I really like where our top six or seven batters that will probably be in the batting order are right now, and I think that we’re going to be a dangerous lineup that a lot of teams are going to have to really maneuver hard to work around.”
It was only two years ago that Victor Robles was a 2019 Gold Glove Award finalist for his dazzling play in center field. The Nationals tasked him with working on his agility this offseason after he added muscle weight last season. This spring, they have been taking a look at him as a potential leadoff hitter.
“I'm a Victor Robles lover,” Rizzo said. “I love that guy. I think he's got terrific skills. He's just scratching the surface. He had a little hiccup last year. … You have not seen the best of Victor Robles yet. He works very, very hard, and he's taking care of his business. He's going to be a solid contributor to a really good team this year.”
Kieboom settling in
For the second consecutive spring, the Nationals have given Carter Kieboom the opportunity to earn the starting job at third base. After simplifying his approach at the plate, focusing on his footwork and undergoing LASIK eye surgery, Kieboom is more settled in at the hot corner. There is a priority for Kieboom to get extra at-bats -- either in games or on the back fields -- before Opening Day.
“I like where he’s at in the tweaks he’s made with his swing, I think [they] are coming around,” Rizzo said. “I’ve seen him take some pitches the other way with authority this Spring Training. Defensively, he’s much more comfortable with his footwork. I think he’s putting in the work to prepare for this season, and I actually really like where he’s at at this point in Spring Training.”
Eyeing the future
The Nats got their first look at their top three prospects -- right-handers Jackson Rutledge, Cade Cavalli and Cole Henry -- in Major League action last week against the Mets. The message to all the prospects in camp, regardless of age or ranking, is to use the time in Spring Training to get ready for your name to be called.
“We need those guys to prepare for being in the big leagues,” Rizzo said. “We've never been afraid to push guys, young players to the big leagues. We rarely go by chronological age or those type of things; we just go by how can they impact the big league club. Those two guys [Rutledge and Cavalli] specifically, and about four or five other guys you've seen pitch during Spring Training, collectively will impact the big leagues in the very near future.”