Top 10 story lines entering Nationals spring training

February 12, 2014

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Pitchers and catchers are trickling into Space Coast Stadium in Viera for spring training ahead of Thursday’s deadline to report. Although some will arrive earlier, position players don’t have to report until the next Tuesday, a day before the team’s full squad workout. While the majority of the lineup, starting rotation and bullpen are mostly set, there will still be some intrigue to camp. My colleague Adam Kilgore is already in Viera and will soon be filing dispatches from camp, but before all that, we compiled a list of the top 10 story lines entering spring training. Feel free to add your own below. (Programming note: Adam and I will be alternating stints in Viera.)

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post) Matt Williams (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

1. What effect will Matt Williams have? This will be the biggest key to spring. Williams opens his first camp as a major league manager and with a new team. He has plenty of new ideas — such as defensive shifting and aggressive baserunning — that he will implement. He has met most of the players but doesn’t have strong relationships with any of them yet simply because he hasn’t spent much time with them. Over the next seven weeks, the players will feel him out and vice versa. His roots in the organization will take further hold. Williams has all 41 days of spring training mapped out, with a focus on skills and drills, and hopes to instill a hard-working ethic into his team. And we will soon see how the players take to his style, ideas and personality.

(David J. Phillip / AP) Ross Detwiler (David J. Phillip / AP)

2. Who’s the fifth starter? Ross Detwiler is the leading contender and incumbent, but he will still have to earn it. He threw only 71 1/3 innings over 13 starts last season, limited by an oblique strain and ruptured disk in his back. His back improved by the end of the season and he made four strong starts in the instructional league, but he finished the season on the 60-day disabled list while other pitchers contributed. On his heels will be Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan, and perhaps Ross Ohlendorf.

[Update, 1 p.m.: According to reports, A.J. Burnett agreed to a one-year, $16-million deal with the Phillies.] Could the Nationals still make a run at free agent veteran starter A.J. Burnett? A union between the two sides makes sense on several fronts — Burnett wants to remain near his home in Monkton, Md., and the Nationals could strengthen their rotation, depth and bullpen because the move would push Detwiler into relieving. But for now, Detwiler has the best track record as a major league starter among the fifth starter candidates. Keep an eye, however, on the progress of Jordan and especially Roark, whose strong performance last season impressed many team officials.

3. Are Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg healthy? Both players, and the Nationals agreed, say they’re healthy, feeling better than before and ready for spring training. Strasburg has said his offseason preparation was normal after he finished his six-week rehab from surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. Harper, however, recently wouldn’t commit to being fully ready for the start of spring training. Williams has said while he is confident the players, and Adam LaRoche, too, will be ready he will still be cautious with them. The recovery of the team’s cornerstone players will be important to watch in spring.

Gary Cameron / Reuters Danny Espinosa (Gary Cameron / Reuters)

4. What is Danny Espinosa’s role? General Manager Mike Rizzo and Williams have both told Espinosa that he will be given a fair opportunity to win his job back. While Espinosa could ultimately wind up as the Nationals backup infielder, he isn’t even considering that option. He said that no one has told him about being a backup and all he wants is a fair shake at being the everyday second base.

To do so, Espinosa will have much to prove. He has an ardent supporter in Williams, who has talked with him this winter. Espinosa said recently that his wrist and shoulder feel even better than last year when his fractured wrist made even lifting a bat impossible. But now Espinosa must show dramatic improvement at the plate to unseat Anthony Rendon at second. His glove may be exceptional but Espinosa posted a .158/.193/.272 line with 47 strikeouts in 44 major league games last season and a .216/.280/.286 line with 101 strikeouts in 75 games at Class AAA Syracuse. The onus is now all on Espinosa.

5. Who’s the backup catcher? The catching behind Wilson Ramos looks like this, in no strict order: Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon, Chris Snyder, Jeff Howell, Brian Jeroloman and Koyie Hill. That’s not exactly a proven or reassuring group, but Rizzo has said he is comfortable with the depth behind Ramos. He has also said he believes Ramos can remain healthy and hopes he can catch 125 games. Ramos was solid behind the plate (3.26 catcher’s ERA) and good at the plate (111 OPS+ and 16 home runs) in the 78 games he played last season, but he has yet to fully prove that he can remain consistently healthy in the majors. The most he has caught in a season was 108 games in 2011.

Neither Solano (.214 / .245/.279) nor Leon (.177/.291/.252) had good seasons in the minor leagues last season, but the Nationals like the potential of both homegrown players. But if the Nationals are serious about pushing hard for contention this season, wouldn’t adding a surer option at backup catcher make sense? The Nationals have been linked to Rays backup catcher Jose Lobaton, who posted a .714 OPS last season and is reportedly on the trading block, and perhaps they make a run at him. But for now, the health of Ramos and the showings of Solano, Leon, Snyder and Co. should be at the forefront of the team’s spring evaluations.

Jayson Werth. (Alex Brandon / AP) Jayson Werth. (Alex Brandon / AP)

6. Can the Nationals stay healthy? Nationals players missed 617 days on the disabled list last season. Harper played only 118 games. Jayson Werth, at 34 the oldest player on the team, played 129 games. Ramos played in only 78 games. Detwiler made only 13 starts. Injuries are a fact of life and, at times, affected Ryan Zimmerman, Espinosa, Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Mattheus and Ohlendorf,  among others.

While the numbers don’t appear completely up to date, ESPN’s roster analysis chart has the Nationals’ average age pegged at 27.4, 10th oldest in the majors, sandwiched between the Diamondbacks and Angels. The message is clear, however: the Nationals still remain talented but they’re getting older. A lot of injuries occur earlier in the baseball season, as players ramp up in spring training towards the regular season. The Nationals were relatively unscathed during spring training last year — Garcia was the biggest injury — and they hope to remain equally healthy this spring. But still, they will be a year older.

 7. What will the bullpen look like? The bullpen’s back three relievers appear set — Rafael Soriano as closer, and Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen as set-up men — but the rest of the group is less so. Jerry Blevins is expected to serve as the team’s full-inning left-hander with Xavier Cedeno as the specialist. Craig Stammen has been a strong long reliever and versatile reliever in the past, and while he is unsure of his 2014 role, his track record secures him a spot.

This potentially leaves only one spot for a handful of players: Ohlendorf, Roark, Mattheus and, perhaps a long shot, Sammy Solis. Oft-injured Christian Garcia, and other non-roster invitees, such as Luis Ayala and Manny Delcarmen, should be considered bullpen depth to start. What happens with the fifth starter’s spot will affect the bullpen’s composition and the minor league options of the relievers could be factors. The battle for the final bullpen spots will be among the fiercest competition in camp.

Adam LaRoche (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post) Adam LaRoche (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

8. Can LaRoche rebound? Time is against LaRoche. He enters camp at 34 years old, on the downside of the traditional decline years. He is coming off one of his worst seasons in the majors: a .237/.332/.403, 20-homer campaign in which he struggled to keep on weight because of his ADD medicine. LaRoche vowed to correct his weight problems in the offseason, so how he looks in spring training could be an early sign of what may come. The Nationals are confident that LaRoche’s 2013 season was an anomaly.

If LaRoche produces anything close to his career averages — .264/.337/.474 with 22 home runs — the Nationals would be happy. LaRoche enters the final guaranteed year of his contract with the Nationals — he holds a mutual option for 2015 — and how he plays this season could have several ripple effects across the organization. Who is his future replacement: Tyler Moore, prospect Matt Skole or a player outside the organization? If LaRoche struggles again, will that hasten Zimmerman’s move across the diamond?

9. How will Zimmerman look at first base? The Nationals plan to get Zimmerman some reps at first base during spring so that he can get acclimated. Zimmerman is still the Nationals’ everyday third base, but by getting him some work across the diamond they are building versatility. Zimmerman already knows that Williams wants him to play about 10 to 15 games at first, particularly against tough left-handed pitchers that will force LaRoche to the bench.

But, ideally for the Nationals, LaRoche will have enough of a bounce-back season that he won’t need to rest as much and, if Zimmerman plays third base and throws as well as he did late last season, there’ll be no need to begin the transition across the diamond in ’14. The future may hinge, in part, on how well Zimmerman takes to practicing occasionally at a new position over the next seven weeks.

Jordan Zimmermann Jordan Zimmermann (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

10. Will the Nationals ink Zimmermann and/or Ian Desmond to long-term extensions? With the arbitration deadline looming, the Nationals inked both homegrown players to two-year deals to buy out their final two years of arbitration. Zimmermann, coming off his all-star, 19-win season, was signed to a two-year, $24-million deal; Desmond agreed to a two-year, $17.5-million deal. By back-loading the deals, the Nationals save about $3 million in the short term and have more flexibility in this season’s payroll.

But by handing both players two-year deals the Nationals didn’t preclude themselves from handing out long-term deals to either player. The team has discussed long-term extensions with both players but couldn’t come to agreement with either before the arbitration deadline. It’s unclear if Zimmermann or Desmond would be open to continue talks during spring training, but if they are, the two sides have seven more weeks of potential negotiating. Rizzo has said he is open to continuing talks, if needed, into the season. But in the past, Desmond, for example, has preferred to avoid contract talk during the season.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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