Perspective | It’s clear the young Nats are on the way. Less clear: Who will lead them.


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It was the first game of spring training, the Washington Nationals were down 7-0, and Lane Thomas’s job to prepare for the season ahead was to take one more at-bat and get the heck out of there. The game was not televised back in Washington. A quiet crowd of 3,655 watched with faint interest. Thomas tapped the ball toward third base and ran — hard.

“As you mature, you understand what you need to do and cope with how you are going to prepare yourself,” Thomas said. “Not necessarily doing it because the strength coach is watching or because [the manager is] watching and he doesn’t know me completely yet. It’s more like getting all that stuff down because, you know, ‘This is what I need to do.’ ”

What Thomas needs to do is prepare hard and play hard, regardless of the stage of spring training or the season. And what the Nationals need from Thomas is to do just that: certainly to prepare himself for what’s ahead but also to get a clubhouse full of youngsters and castoffs to understand what professional preparation looks like.

Thomas’s position in the organization wasn’t going to be determined by whether he busted tail and beat out that roller in the fourth inning of the Nationals’ Grapefruit League opener. (He did beat it out, by the way.) And his position in the organization isn’t to be overstated, because he has been a full-time major league starter for just two seasons. Any sway he holds is more by default than accomplishment.

The corner of the Nats clubhouse at Park of the Palm Beaches is inhabited by CJ Abrams, Luis García Jr., Carter Kieboom, Ildemaro Vargas, Joey Gallo, Victor Robles, Nick Senzel and Thomas. It says something about the club’s current state that such territory once housed Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, Howie Kendrick, Adam Eaton and the like.

The most important aspect of the Nationals’ rebuild will be talent. Some of it’s here already, and it’s apparent in Dylan Crews’s batting practice shot off a scoreboard Saturday — a blast that knocked off a piece of the apparatus and may have ownership sending him a bill — and, more impressively, James Wood’s towering moonshot in Saturday night’s game against the Houston Astros.

The kids are here, and the kids are coming. But when they arrive, who will lead them? That question is both unanswered and important.

“Leadership happens when it’s organic,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “When you force-feed it, it never works. So I think you will see someone emerge. One or three or four will emerge as guys that people will follow. And it’s not always the best player on the team.”

Fairly or not — and I’d argue fairly — any Nats renaissance will be compared, in stages, to the first one because, before they won a championship, they had a foundation solid enough to be annually competitive. And before they were annually competitive, they were terrible. At the major league level, the Nats are still at or near the terrible phase.

But part of the future foundation must be rooted in attitude and approach. On the pitching side, Patrick Corbin, for all his struggles — and they are many — has taught professionalism to the kids around him, not to mention organized meals and picked up the tab. That stuff matters.

Corbin’s contract is up after this year. Thomas, not due to be a free agent until after the 2025 season, will remain. When the prospects arrive, someone will have to be in place as a tone-setter. As Thomas, coming off a year in which he hit 28 homers, drove in 86 runs and stole 20 bases, continues to discover himself, he could help set that tone.

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“At first, he didn’t really know what his identity was and what he could be,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “And over the course of the couple of years we’ve had him, he understands what he can do and what he can’t do with it.”

When Thomas arrived in a throwaway deadline deal for left-hander Jon Lester in 2021, he came with a career OPS of .625 in 142 plate appearances over parts of three seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. After a deadline in which Max Scherzer and Turner were dealt away, Lester-for-Thomas was an afterthought. But Thomas has transformed himself into Washington’s everyday right fielder. With the Nats, he has a .763 OPS in 1,436 plate appearances.

“Every time he gets in the box,” Martinez said, “he has the chance to do something special.”

One reason that’s true, though, is because he doesn’t prepare as though he’s established. He prepares as if he has to prove it. Nothing against anybody in the Nats’ clubhouse, but Thomas looks around the room, he said, and thinks, “You’re not taking my job.”

“I think that’s a hard thing to do,” he said. “You kind of want to be happy go-lucky, but sometimes stuff like that hurts guys. They get a little too friendly with each other. Not in a bad way, but you know, there’s still a competitive nature to all this. Guys are fighting for jobs. So I try not to lose that mind-set going into spring. I’m still going to earn my position.”

The Nationals believe he has earned it, and thus he was out of the lineup for Sunday’s game up the road in Jupiter. The privileges of a veteran include infrequent spring training travel. The Nationals who have earned them just have fewer credentials than the group that once occupied that part of the clubhouse. Still, there’s something to be learned about the style and methods with which the generation that preceded this one delivered their messages.

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“Zimmerman didn’t say ‘boo,’ ” Rizzo said. “But when he said ‘boo,’ the world stopped. Everyone heard him say it, you know?”

The new Nats are learning who will deliver those messages and how they’ll get them across. On Sunday against the Miami Marlins, the future — which is creeping closer to the present — was again on display. MacKenzie Gore looked sharp — 26 pitches, 21 strikes — over two innings with four strikeouts. Wood jacked another homer on another effortless swing, this one to center. Robert Hassell III drove in a run. Crews patrolled center field confidently and drew a walk.

The kids are coming. When they arrive, someone will have to lead them. It’s a development process that might not be as important as cultivating the talent on hand, but it’s close.



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