COMMENTARY | The annual arrival of pitchers and catchers is upon us.
While every team carries high hopes into the blank slate of spring, the Washington Nationals enter uncharted territory, showing up at spring training with the highest of expectations for the first time since the franchise moved to D.C.
Coming off of a breakthrough season, the Nats enter 2013 carrying an unfamiliar target on their backs as defending NL East champs. Add an intriguing group of new faces, and there are plenty of budding storylines for the upcoming season.
But before we get to them, there are questions that need to be addressed in Florida. As the Nationals settle in at Space Coast Stadium -- perhaps their final spring at the team's isolated Grapefruit League home -- here's what to watch for during spring training:
How will the new additions transform the team?
The front office didn't just patch holes during the offseason -- the team added players who could significantly affect the Nationals' lineup. The perfect example is the Nats' trade for Minnesota Twins CF Denard Span, who might not be a superstar but he could trigger a positive domino effect for the team. Span steps in as a true leadoff hitter and CF, allowing Bryce Harper to settle in at LF, and ending the odd experiment of Jayson Werth at the top of the order.
The fifth spot in the starting rotation swaps out Edwin Jackson for Dan Haren, and while Haren scuffled a bit last year, the National League's best rotation becomes even more fearsome if he can show early signs of reverting to form (16-10, 3.17 ERA, 1.02 WHIP as recently as 2011). And there's the surprising addition of Rafael Soriano, adding a pricey closer to a bullpen that already featured a rising star closer in Drew Storen and a successful fill-in closer in Tyler Clippard.
While spring training is rarely an accurate gauge for the regular season, it should be fun to watch how Davey Johnson tinkers with the lineup and the bullpen.
Can Strasburg and Gonzalez shut out distractions?
The Nationals arguably feature baseball's top one-two punch in Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez at the top of the rotation. Both young pitchers had outstanding seasons in 2012 and should have even better years ahead of them. But if you want your starters to be laser-focused and free of distractions, you might be just a bit concerned.
Strasburg's 2012 season ended, of course, with the infamous decision to arbitrarily shut him down early one year after Tommy John surgery. Strasburg was not happy, and the team exited the playoffs in the first round, meaning this controversy will not go away anytime soon. Gonzalez finished off 2012 as a legitimate Cy Young candidate, but shockingly showed up in recent news reports linking him to performance-enhancing drugs -- for now, he's innocent until proven otherwise, but Gonzalez's trademark ever-present smile will be sorely tested.
Who's behind the plate?
The Nationals appear to have a wealth of options at catcher, but nothing is certain at this point. Wilson Ramos looked like a bona fide emerging star in 2011, his first full season, but then things turned south. First, in the following offseason, he was kidnapped at gunpoint at his home in Venezuela. Then, early on in the 2012 season, he tore his ACL and missed the remainder of the year.
Kurt Suzuki was acquired midseason from the Oakland A's and was a pleasant surprise, both behind the plate and with his bat. The team also has promising young catchers in Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano, and this offseason the Nats signed veteran free-agent Chris Snyder. Add it all up, and the key position remains a question mark heading into the spring.
Who's on second?
Danny Espinosa continues to flash signs of being a quality major-league second baseman, and he could be a fixture in the middle of the Nats infield for years to come. Still, the career .239 average is worrisome as is a balky shoulder.
Meanwhile, a case could be made that Steve Lombardozzi deserved more time at 2B last season. He hit .273 while filling in at a number of positions and had a .992 fielding percentage over 51 games at 2B. The team likely won't refer to this as a position battle heading into the spring, but it sure looks like one.
Will Tyler Moore force his way into more games?
In addition to Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore is the other bench player pushing hard for playing time. Before tailing off down the stretch, the rookie OF/1B looked like a real find. He finished with a .263 average, 10 HRs, and 29 RBIs in limited playing time.
There's little room in the lineup for Moore but if he looks good in the spring, he could play a key role off the bench this season. And if Adam LaRoche needs extra rest, or an injury takes out an outfielder, the Nats might have a good, young option.
KW Rosenfeld is an award-winning writer who visited every major league ballpark in the summer of 1991. A longtime resident of Northern Virginia, he's still thankful that baseball has returned to D.C.
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