A welcome to Viera, and five things to watch for there
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 1:11 PM
I arrived in Florida today, for the start of the Nationals' spring training in Viera. It's already been an eventful day. The drive from the Orlando airport to the Residence Inn that I'm calling home included a stretch Navigator limo drilling a wild turkey in the middle of Route 528. The limo, with some major damage to its grill, survived. The turkey did not. Not all is that sad. The sun is shining, Nationals players are still trickling in, and within two days pitchers and catchers officially report. Team employees spent today finishing up the clubhouse so it's ready when players arrive in full. There should be some guys working out tomorrow, and updates and interviews should follow. The first game, by the way, is Feb. 28, just 15 days away. For the time being, here's a quick look at five of the story lines I'm most looking forward to following this spring: Jayson Werth becomes a National. Ever since the Nationals handed him the 14th richest contract in baseball history, Jayson Werth has existed more as an idea than a baseball player. The discussion and debate about the merits of his contract was, without question, appropriate. But after a while, it also obscured something else that's important: Werth is a darn fine baseball player and will most likely be excellent for the 2011 Nationals. With spring here, we can place the contract talk on the back burner and focus on analyzing Werth as a player. It will be fascinating to see how he fits into the lineup and in the clubhouse, how he handles right field in Nationals Park, how he deals with the new pressure to lift the Nationals out of their last-place abyss. Whether or not Werth's contract looks good years from now is one thing. Put that on hold. Now that spring is here, we can finally just watch him play. Bryce Harper's first spring training. Harper more than held his own out in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .343 with a homer, a double, a triple and four walks in limited time. He was playing with some of the prospects in the majors. This spring will provide a new challenge to Harper, an 18-year-old who devours new challenges. At least for a short while, he'll be facing the best players in the world. It will also be interesting to watch Harper interact with teammates, all of them much older. We still think of Ryan Zimmerman as a relatively young star, and he is EIGHT YEARS older than Harper. Ivan Rodriguez is old enough be his father. Last year's reigning first overall pick, Stephen Strasburg, was a model for high-profile rookies who want to impress veterans. Harper tends to be more demonstrative than Strasburg, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It'll be different, though, and worth watching. Mike Rizzo's defense debuts. The Nationals rebuilt themselves as a defense-first team this offseason, swapping Adam Dunn for Adam LaRoche at first base, positioning Danny Espinosa to take over at second base and adding Jayson Werth to the outfield while subtracting Josh Willingham. The infield especially figures to be improved when you factor in the jump Ian Desmond is expected to make in his second full season. We'll begin to see what kind of effect the improved defense has on the pitching staff, and the team as a whole. Can Nyjer Morgan seize center field? Morgan enters spring as the Nationals' everyday centerfielder and leadoff hitter. The best version of their defense includes him locked in out in centerfield, and the best version of their offense includes him creating havoc (the good kind of havoc) in the leadoff spot. That being the case, Morgan has a lot to prove after his disappointing 2010. Hitting Morgan leadoff is not tenable if he logs another .319 on-base percentage - including .280 against left-handed pitchers - with a 73 OPS+ while leading the league in getting caught stealing to boot. The Nationals are giving him the spots to start the year. But he'll have to earn them in order to keep his important dual roles. If Morgan falters, the Nationals could move to a platoon, perhaps with Werth taking center and Michael Morse taking right field against left-handed pitchers. Or Morgan could lose the spot altogether to Rick Ankiel or Roger Bernadina. The Nationals want Morgan to be their guy, but it's up to him and his performance. The state of the rotation. Rizzo couldn't land the No. 1 starter he wanted to this offseason, but the Nationals' starting pitcher - among the worst in the majors last season - figures to improve, anyway. Jason Marquis should be an adequate piece of the rotation after his injury-filled disaster of a 2010. John Lannan finished the year strong. Yunesky Maya had a great winter. Chien-Ming Wang should finally contribute. Jordan Zimmermann will have a full season and is further removed from his Tommy John surgery. Tom Gorzelanny gives them added depth. Ross Detwiler should come into the spring healthy. Etc., etc. It would be a little optimistic to think that everything would go right for all those starters. Plus, Livan Hernandez is more likely to regress than improve after his superb 2010 season. Chances are, though, the Nationals will field a far more respectable rotation this year than last. Now we get to see it take shape.