The Nationals will gather for the first time this week in Viera, Fla., a collection of players unlike any in Washington since … when, exactly? When is the last time Washington was expected to take the pennant, to dominate the league, to win a World Series? This will be a very different year, colored by raised standards and the bull’s eye on their backs. The anticipation for the most anticipated Nationals season since baseball returned is just about over.
As spring training comes to life, here are 13 things to watch for 2013 spring training.
Gio Gonzalez throws one of the best curveballs in the majors, but the one he presented the Nationals this spring doubles as their most pivotal question and biggest headache. The Nationals still do not know whether Gonzalez’s alleged involvement with the PED clinic Biogenesis will land him on a 50-game suspension or be dismissed after Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation.
If Gonzalez, who claims he has never used a banned substance, is acquitted, the Nationals will only have to worry about if the fallout from the controversy will affect Gonzalez’s performance. For the gregarious Gonzalez, that may not be a small concern, but it would beat the alternative.
If MLB suspends him, they will have to go about replacing the electric lefty who won 21 games and finished third in last year’s Cy Young vote. One option would be opening up an in-house competition for a temporary fifth-starter spot, headlined, mostly likely, by left-hander Zach Duke, currently slated for the bullpen, and Christian Garcia, the hard-throwing right-hander they’re converting from reliever to starter.
But the Nationals have signaled with several moves, including dealing their best pitching prospect for Denard Span and signing closer Rafael Soriano, that they believe 2013 can be their year. That urgency may spill over in the event they need to replace Gonzalez.
They could go after retired veteran Javier Vazquez, whom they have scouted extensively as he mulls a comeback. They could even try to convince Kyle Lohse, the Scott Boras client still straggling in free agency because draft pick compensation has scared teams away, to sign a big, one-year contract. Lohse, who has a 3.76 ERA over the past three seasons, would leave them with a logjam upon Gonzalez’s return in late May. But then, too much pitching is a false problem. Especially if you are trying to win the World Series, extreme circumstances require extreme solutions.
2. “World Series or bust”
Davey Johnson provided the theme of the Nationals’ season when he uttered those words at the winter meetings. They may as well embrace it, because those will be the external expectations, anyway. After they won 98 games in 2012 and came within an excruciating strike of the NLCS, the Nationals filled their center field hole, beefed up their bullpen, added a veteran starter and gained experience across the board. On paper, they are the favorite to win the National League. How do they handle their newfound standard while, at the same time, healing the mental scars from the end of 2012? It sounds like a cliché problem, but as anyone who watched Game 5 knows, that kind of pressure matters. Without Michael Morse and Mark DeRosa around, the loose, relaxed clubhouse dynamic may change. The effort to keep the same feel with new faces and enhanced pressure will start in Viera.
3. Second thoughts
Firstly, Danny Espinosa will have to prove this month that the torn rotator cuff he suffered at the end of last year is fully healed. Secondly, even after he ranked among the best second baseman in baseball last year – don’t let the strikeouts fool you; he did – Espinosa may have to prove he’s still the second baseman.
Davey Johnson is likely to give Steve Lombardozzi a chance in open competition to wrest the starting second base job from Espinosa. Lombardozzi received 416 plate appearances in a utility role last year, and he has shown in the minor leagues a penchant for steep improvement every year.
Is he good enough to challenge Espinosa? Some in the organization think so; others believe Espinosa is about to make a leap in his third season similar to the one Ian Desmond made a year ago.
Even if he doesn’t, Espinosa is still probably a better overall player than Lombardozzi. Espinosa struck out a whopping 189 times last season, a number that surely needs to come down. But his stellar defense and frequent power still gave him 3.8 wins above replacement, per FanGraphs.com, bettered in the NL only by Brandon Phillips and Aaron Hill. He is probably not capable of being much worse offensively, and Espinosa was still a highly valuable player. This could be a breakout season for Espinosa, but first he’ll have to answer some questions in Viera.
4. Zimmerman’s shoulder load
All the flashy new players around him may garner the most attention, but the Nationals’ ingrained superstar will be under more scrutiny than usual this spring. The Nationals, along with everyone else, will be eager to see Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing after he underwent shoulder surgery in November. Both Zimmerman and the Nationals believe the bone spur in right shoulder, which led to minor fraying of both his rotator cuff and labrum, led to the faulty mechanics that produced Zimmerman’s 12 throwing errors last season.
Zimmerman expected all winter to arrive in Viera with no limitations in his shoulder. The Nationals will bring Zimmerman along slowly, even if it’s only a precaution. They believe he’ll be much improved over last year, and that a possible move to first base remains far in the future. The first clues will come this month.
5. The beginning of Davey’s end
Davey Johnson insisted strongly at the outset of the offseason that he did not want the Nationals to make any acquisitions on his account, for the purpose of sending him into the sunset of managerial retirement with a title. Well, regardless of motivation, the Nationals have built a team constructed to do just that. At 70, Johnson is not about to change his style, grinning and imperious at once.
6. Picking the ‘pen
Rafael Soriano’s late addition will give Johnson not only a trio of late-inning artists, but also a difficult choice this spring. The Nationals have seven spots to give eight relievers, not counting Christian Garcia. The decision figures to come down to Henry Rodriguez, who’s returning from elbow surgery and is out of options, and Craig Stammen, who was excellent last season in multiple roles and signed a two-year, $2.5 million extension this winter. Rodriguez is out of options, and so the Nationals would likely lose him if he doesn’t make the 25-man roster. In the past, the Nationals have used the option game not necessarily as a decision-maker, but certainly as a tie-breaker. If Rodriguez proves he’s healthy and pitches as effectively as last spring, Stammen could be the odd man out, fair or not, much like John Lannan in the rotation a year ago.
7. Shut down no more
The incessant debate and chatter surrounding an innings limit will not bother Stephen Strasburg this year, because there is no innings limit. The Nationals will still hanlde Strasburg with a measure of care, since he is a 25-year-old who threw 159 1/3 innings last year – he won’t be stringing together complete games or slapping up Verlanderian pitch counts. But he’ll be around the entire season and into the playoffs. His dominance makes it difficult to forget he is still developing as a pitcher, and this spring will give Strasburg the chance to tweak his game.
8. Harper’s encore
Last year, when teammates slapped a “Joe Namath” nameplate over his locker, the storyline focused on Bryce Harper’s long-shot odds to make the major league roster. Now he’s an integral force in the Nationals’ World Series hopes. With Denard Span in the fold, Harper can focus on his corner spot – right or left will be decided this spring. He’ll enter the season likely slotted at third in the Nationals’ lineup, between Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. Harper has made no secret of his lofty ambition to the be the best player in the sport. If he follows the pattern of other phenoms who earned significant playing time at 19, that day could arrive this year.
9. Span in the middle
The Nationals will get their first look at the kind of player they have coveted for years – a center fielder who can track down anything and a leadoff hitter with speed and enviable on-base skills. They lost a major part of their clubhouse in Michael Morse, and the Nationals will find out how Span, renowned for his work ethic and demeanor, fits in.
10. Back end in sight
No matter what happens at the front of the rotation with Gonzalez, the Nationals figure to have an excellent back end, especially if newly acquired Dan Haren is as healthy as he expects to be. Last year, Haren struggled through the first health concerns of his career and lost velocity on his fastball, but he pitched 48 innings with a 2.81 ERA in his final eight starts.
Ross Detwiler finally has a spot without looking over his shoulder. If the end of his 2012 season – culminating with his masterpiece in Game 4 of the NLDS – is any indication, Detwiler could assert himself as one of the best young left-handed starters in the league. If Gonzalez gets suspended, he’ll suddenly be the best lefty the Nationals have got.
11. Contract questions
With arbitration cases already starting up, the Nationals are running out of time to strike a deal with Jordan Zimmermann to stay out of a hearing. This spring also figures to be the last chance until next winter for Ian Desmond and the Nationals to come to an agreement on a long-term extension, if that is in the offing. Neither side has any urgency, but it would provide the Nationals cost-certainty on one of the best young players while granting Desmond security into the future.
12. Waiting on the world
Three key players will leave the Nationals for the World Baseball Classic. Espinosa will play for Team Mexico, Gonzalez will pitch for the U.S. and Roger Bernadina – who, even following his strong 2012, may have to fight for a spot on the Nationals bench – will play for the Netherlands. Like any team that sends a player to the event, they’ll have to hold their breath and hope they return without injury.
The Nationals’ farm system will be overlooked this year, as tends to happen when there is so much to watch on the major league level. But this spring still offers plenty of subplots on the famr. Anthony Rendon is coming off a strong Arizona Fall League and healthy – for now – and could set the foundation for a possible big league promotion this season. Matt Skole will be in major league camp as a non-roster invitee, giving the Nationals their first extended look at the power-hitting third baseman. Matt Purke, whom the Nationals signed to a major league deal out of the 2011 draft, will have the chance to prove he’s healthy after his tenuous left shoulder limited him to three starts last year. Nathan Karns, now on the 40-man roster, will try to continue his ascension after being named the system’s pitcher of the year in 2012. Left-hander Sammy Solis will be one year removed from Tommy John surgery and ramping up into a normal routine.