Spring Training 2021: The ‘Cubbing’ of Washington?

Perception is often reality, from those who think the Monopoly Guy wears a monocle (please tell me people still play Monopoly in 2021) to those who swear they heard Darth Vader say, “Luke, I am your father.”

As the Washington Nationals revamped their roster over the winter, moves needed to be made to address various vacancies in the lineup and rotation. Two of the three big moves involved former Chicago Cubs players — the Nats signed free agent outfielder Kyle Schwarber to a one-year contract worth $10 million Jan. 9, before signing pitcher Jon Lester to a one-year deal worth $5 million Jan. 27.

And that’s where perception takes over for the casual eye.

The Nats signed a total of eight players from Jan. 9 through Feb. 3. In addition to Lester and Schwarber, three other signees had ties to the Cubs: catcher Welington Castillo (with the Nats in 2020 but was a Cub from 2009-2015), catcher Alex Avila (with Chicago in 2017) and infielder Hernan Perez (who played for the Cubs last year).

And then, right after the team held its first full-squad workout, Washington signed former Cubs reliever Jeremy Jefress (four wins and eight saves in 22 appearances for the Cubs in 2020). Not to mention the offseason got underway in October with the hiring of former Cubs Pitching Coach Jim Hickey to the same role in D.C. It’s enough to make the conspiracy theorists think there might be ivy sprouting at Nationals Park this summer.

Most transactions are separate situations, although when you sign a player for one position, it usually means you’re done shopping for that roster spot. As the former Cubs (a few of which he had coached when he was in Chicago) started piling up, did Davey Martinez worry he might be compiling a Wrigley East?

“(Laughter) … no. I’m glad they’re here, don’t get me wrong. (General Manager Mike) Rizzo and I sat down and we put together a list of guys that could potentially be a fit for us,” Martinez said. “And we were fortunate enough to get a lot of guys that we actually wanted. They fit in. And they’re doing well.”

Kyle Schwarber joins D.C. after an off-year in 2020, where the 27-year old hit a career-low .188. But Martinez feels the onetime Cub is due for a bounce-back 2021.

“You saw Schwarber (Sunday in the exhibition opener) get a base hit up the middle, throw somebody out from left field,” Martinez said. “He loves to play the game — his energy in the clubhouse and his energy on the field is going to help us out a lot.”

Schwarber played for Davey when he was the bench coach with the Cubs from 2015-17. “Just being in Chicago when he was there,” Schwarber said at the start of spring training. “Then you’re going to be coming into this spring, you kind of have this view in your head how it’s going to form. Then you show up, and it’s being kind of how you picture.”

Jon Lester looks to fill the fourth spot of the team’s pitching rotation, and if there’s one thing he can do, it’s walk to the mound after warming up in the bullpen every fifth day. The 37-year old made 12 starts last year (the maximum possible in a 60-game regular season) and before that, had started over 30 games across 11 consecutive seasons.

His relationship with Martinez makes his move east smoother: “Anytime you come into a new situation and you have familiar faces, it makes things a lot easier,” Lester said when he signed.

“When you do have that anxiety of being the new kid or whatever, you at least have somebody you can run to and have a conversation with, or just feel comfortable around.”

While nobody is expecting the 15-year veteran to lead the league with 18 wins like he did three years ago, Lester will be looked upon to be part of the glue to the clubhouse foundation.

“I think he’s going to do really well. He’s another guy who fits in well with our clubhouse to build that culture that we have,” Martinez said. “And he’s a leader. When things go awry, he’s going to be one of the guys I count on to get things squared away in the clubhouse.”

Regardless of the seasons Lester and Schwarber might have, or even if Jefress breaks through and becomes a fixture in the bullpen (for the record, we’re not completely writing off the hopes of Avila, Castillo or Perez making the roster), the biggest Washington signing of a Cub was when they hired bench coach Davey Martinez in 2017 to manage the Nationals.

What were some of the key lessons the skipper learned in the windy city?

“Don’t permit the pressures to exceed the pleasures of this game. You kind of have fun. We’ve got a lot of good players. As you know, I’m going to be patient.”

Like letting ivy grow.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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