Washington Nationals say spring training has 'different feel' thanks to improved talent

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 12:21 AM

VIERA, FLA. - When this spring training ends and baseball teams demarcate major leaguers from minor leaguers, the Washington Nationals will face an unfamiliar dilemma. A legitimate major league player - someone another team may actually find use for - will almost certainly be left off their opening day roster. It is a trivial fact, but one made significant by their bleak history.

For most of their time in Washington, the Nationals, for their final opening day roster spots, have mostly decided between two wrong answers. Three years ago, Rob Mackowiak found his way onto the team. Two years ago, their initial bullpen included Steven Shell, Wil Ledezma and Mike Hinckley. Just last year, Willy Taveras batted second - twice - during the first week of the season.

For all of those players, their last game with the Nationals was also their last in the majors. They are not alone.

As spring training takes shape, one of the clearest results from General Manager Mike Rizzo's offseason acquisitions has been the raising of the Nationals' minimum standard for entry into the major leagues. It has translated, Nationals players say, into a more intense and energetic spring camp.

"You look on the guys we're rolling out, it's real impressive," reliever Drew Storen said. "They're quality major league players, and there's not that many spots. That kind of breeds competition. Nobody is complacent. Nobody assumes, 'I've got this job.' "

After the Nationals' first spring training game, a 9-3 victory Monday in Port St. Lucie, John Lannan, who had not traveled with the team, called Craig Stammen about the game. Stammen's impression struck Lannan.

"He said there was a different feel," Lannan said. "We've got a lot of young guys. We've got a lot of guys on this team that have won.

"I'm not going to say before we weren't intense, but it was more intensity. There was more urgency, because expectations have been raised. We expect more out of ourselves. We expect to win. In some of the acquisitions, there's a maturity that's helped us a lot."

Drawing conclusions from two spring training games is hazardous and foolish, and on March 1, optimism flows in every camp from Clearwater to Goodyear. With those dual disclaimers, the Nationals have played crisp, winning baseball during a pair of victories over the New York Mets. Their runners have routinely taken an extra base, their pitchers have two walks in 18 innings, their batters have pounded 25 hits and their defense has made two errors.

"We have a new energy," second baseman Danny Espinosa said. "We have a good team. We want to let people know they're not going to roll over us. We're going to play hard. We're going to run balls out. We're all on the same page with that."

The higher standard owes, simply, to better, more legitimate players. The final two roster spots will likely be filled by some combination of Roger Bernadina, Alberto Gonzalez, Alex Cora, Matt Stairs and Laynce Nix. Only Cora and Bernadina logged time in the minors last season, and very little of it. Nix, Cora and Stairs all signed minor league deals, but are regarded as established major leaguers.

"It's not like they came here," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, "because this is the last team that wanted them."

The Nationals have had plenty of players like that - and those players routinely made the team. Based on research first done by Mark Zuckerman of NatsInsider.com, 22 players who appeared in a Nationals game during the 2008 and 2009 seasons have not played another major league game, and likely never will again. Perhaps a dozen players off the 2010 Nationals roster could share that distinction.

The past three seasons, during which the Nationals have lost 298 games, are littered with names best forgotten and scenarios that, this spring, would have no chance to play out. Odalis Perez signed a minor league contract the week before spring training began in 2008, then started opening day. The Nationals purged three relievers on one day in 2009.

Manager Jim Riggleman was careful not to disrespect players for whom Washington was their last major league outpost - "the Pete Orrs of the world," he said. But he agreed that this would be the first year since he arrived in 2009 that the Nationals would have to cut a full-fledged major leaguer before opening day.

The presence of adequate major league players at the bottom of their roster does not mean the Nationals should begin planning a World Series parade. But, even at this early point in spring training, it has made a difference. Even before games began Monday, Storen said he could feel a difference.

"We've always had talent," Zimmerman said. "But there's a difference between talent and people who can play at this level."

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