Nationals spring training story lines

February 18, 2012

●Will Bryce Harper make the opening day roster?

Manager Davey Johnson believes the enormously talented Harper, above, can flout baseball’s take-it-slowly developmental convention. He’ll push to give Harper every chance to head north with the Nationals. But ultimately, it may not be a difficult decision to start Harper in the minors. Keeping a prepared prospect in the minors for too long is a minor misstep at worst. Promoting one too early and then sending him back down would invite catastrophe.

The Nationals insist Harper’s preparedness will be the only factor, but there’s also the business side. If the Nats wait until mid-May to promote Harper, they would delay him becoming eligible for free agency by a year. By starting him in the majors, the Nationals would effectively sacrifice a full season of Harper at 25 for one month of him at 19.

Who will play center field?

Harper’s whereabouts on April 5 will be the deciding factor. If the Nationals put him on the 25-man roster, he would man right field and shift Jayson Werth, above, to center field. If Harper begins the season in the minors, Werth would stay in right and the Nationals would make their center field job an open competition between Rick Ankiel, Mike Cameron and Roger Bernadina, with the likeliest result a platoon with Ankiel and Cameron.

Whoever ends up in center likely won’t stay for long — when Harper does reach the majors, he’ll play right and move Werth to center.

●What are the Nationals going to do with all their starting pitchers?

The Nationals once struggled to fill out their starting rotation. With the return of Stephen Strasburg and the acquisitions of Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, their only problem this spring is sorting it out. They are taking eight qualified starters to camp.

Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gonzalez are locked in. The Nationals cannot trade Chien-Ming Wang or Jackson until late May because they signed as free agents. Ross Detwiler is out of options and therefore can’t be sent to the minors. So is Tom Gorzelanny, a part of the opening day rotation last season and now a reliever. The Nationals are open to trading John Lannan, above, but they insist they’ll deal him only at their price.

●Where will the runs come from?

After scoring more than only six major league teams in 2011, the Nationals effectively stood pat this offseason. Rather than improving from the outside, the Nationals counted on internal improvement — healthy seasons from Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche; steps forward by Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa; and, maybe most noticeably, a bounce-back season out of Jayson Werth.

Will it work? The key for Werth could be re-learning how to mash against left-handed pitchers. Entering last year, he had hit .292 with a .394 slugging percentage and .550 on-base percentage against lefties in his career. His first year in Washington, lefties held him to .184/.307/.368. Werth suddenly produced the fourth-lowest batting average against them in the majors among right-handed hitters.

After their leadoff hitters reached base at a major league-worst .285 clip last year, the Nationals will entrust the top spot to Desmond, above. He struggled at the plate for most of 2011, but for the last quarter of the season he batted leadoff and hit .304/.342/.437.

●How will the Nationals handle expectations?

The Nationals face an unfamiliar challenge. They have been a curiosity, a laughingstock and an afterthought, but never what they are now: a potential contender, maybe a chic pick to unseat the Phillies in the National League East.

They may have the perfect manager for dealing with the new attention. Johnson, above, thrives on whipping his teams into a just-try-to-beat-us fervor. Before any outside influence takes hold, Johnson himself will convince the Nationals they’re contenders and should expect to be treated as such.

The next six months will tell us if they deserve it. But they can dream now, and, well, that’s what spring is for.

Adam Kilgore

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