Before spring training started in Viera more than six weeks ago, we put together a list of the top 10 story lines heading into camp. They were, in order of importance: Matt Williams’ effect; the fifth starter competition; health of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg; Danny Espinosa’s unknown role; backup catcher options; the Nationals’ health; bullpen composition; Adam LaRoche’s potential rebound; Ryan Zimmerman at first base; and possible long-term deals for Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann.
Now that camp is over, only one exhibition game stands in between the Nationals and the regular season. To show how much can change in the span of a little less than two months, we revisited some of those pre-camp story lines. We picked not only three important story lines from the original list of ten, but also picked three of the most surprising and unforeseen story lines from spring.
Three original story lines
>>> Williams’ is received well: The first-time manager’s developed deeper roots throughout the organization during spring training and, by all accounts, he has been well-received. He has been meticulous and organized, which players have appreciated. He is serious about baseball but also smiles and laughs with coaches and players. He has emphasized maximizing the talent of the roster and implementing his managerial preferences, so the camp has focused on aggressive baserunning, strong defense and using defensive shifts. The true test of his character will come during a potential losing streak, but so far, Williams has impressed those around him.
>>> Good health for Harper and Strasburg: Before camp, both players said their surgically repaired joints had healed and wouldn’t affect them. Harper needed to show that his left knee was healthy and could withstand the daily workload of playing, and he did. He felt only normal soreness during camp and ran pain-free throughout camp, which excited him. Strasburg also proved that his right elbow, which had bone chips removed from in the offseason, was back to normal. His right elbow felt great in camp and he posted a 1.83 ERA over 19 2/3 innings.
>>> A fifth starter is chosen: Well, that still hasn’t happened yet. Recent injuries to Fister this spring may make it so the Nationals don’t actually have to choose just yet. But all spring, Tanner Roark and Taylor Jordan have been neck and neck in the battle for the final spot in the rotation. They both outlasted Ross Detwiler and Chris Young for the spot and both pitched so evenly this spring that the Nationals had yet to make a decision as of Thursday. A side injury on Thursday to Fister, however, may mean that both are in the rotation to start the season anyway.
Three surprising story lines
>>> Fister’s health: The Nationals have been lauded by baseball analysts all winter for getting the better end of this trade with Detroit. But Fister’s body hasn’t held up. He has the potential to improve the rotation, but he experienced right elbow inflammation following his first spring start on March 2. The Nationals remained publicly confident that his elbow was simply experiencing discomfort and that an MRI revealed no structural damage, but anything concerning a pitcher’s elbow causes uneasiness. After rest, Fister’s elbow improved, but as he was on track to return in time to make his first start of the regular season, he felt tightness in his side during a minor league start on Thursday and was pulled, another roadblock in his brief tenure as a National.
>>> A bullpen with Detwiler and Aaron Barrett: The bullpen was always an option for Detwiler but it didn’t seem would actually happen, especially early in the spring. As he worked to show that his back was completely from last season, Detwiler competed to hold on to his old fifth starter’s spot, but it may have been too late. He focused on adding offspeed pitches into his sinker-heavy repertoire but was still learning to do so. So after only three starts, Detwiler was moved into the bullpen. He was initially upset but has calmed down, and the Nationals believe that Detwiler’s power arm can thrive in relief.
Barrett, on the other hand, opened camp as a long shot to make the roster and instead went from a right-hander who had never been above Class AA Harrisburg to impressing coaches. He pitched so well during his spotless spring that he earned the final spot on the Opening Day rpster. Injuries to Ryan Mattheus and Ross Ohlendorf helped pave the way for Barrett, but he was still fabulous during camp, allowing no runs and only five hits in 10 spring appearances.
>>> The emergence of Steven Souza Jr. and Blake Treinen: Neither prospect was expected to compete for spots on the major league roster, but the strong play of both helped dramatically improve their stock in the eyes of team officials. Treinen, acquired in the Michael Morse deal, lit up the radar gun with mid to high 90s fastball and his lively arm, lasting until the final week of spring training cuts. Souza, a speedy and strong outfielder cut earlier, went 11 for 31 with three home runs in the spring but a crowded major league outfield meant an assignment to Class AAA Syracuse for the first time. Both, however, could impact the Nationals’ season later this year.
FROM THE POST
Doug Fister suffers another setback and is doubtful for first start of the season, writes Adam Kilgore.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
MATT WILLIAMS’S QUOTE OF THE DAY
DAYS UNTIL OPENING DAY