Nats Spring Training Begins, Five Big Questions

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Updated: February 18, 2014
Arizona Diamondbacks v Washington Nationals

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With positions players now joining pitchers and catchers, let the spring training for the Washington Nationals formally begin.

Baseball is back.  Sort of.

Taking a look at the 2014 Washington Nationals, it is hard to not think of this Nats roster as a World Series favorite.  Of course, didn’t we go down that path last season?  Didn’t we have a bold declaration that fizzled to bust in 2013?  Yes.  And we here at DCPSR are not bold enough to make strong predictions like that, not until it is earned on the diamond.  We’ve seen enough paper champions at FedEx Field for the Redskins, Verizon Center for the Capitals, and Nationals Park in 2013.  Time to earn the respect bold predictions rely on with performance.

However, there have been some roster additions that have inevitably made this club stronger.  You will find little dissention in opinions that the Nationals made a significant upgrade on the back end of the starting rotation by making an off-season trade for Doug Fister.  Fister replaces departed starter Dan Haren.  Arguably, the addition of Fister  in joining Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez give the Nationals one of the best rotations in the major leagues.   The addition of Nate McLough in the outfield gives the Nationals much better depth off the bench and in reserve in the outfield than they had last season.  Additionally, McLough will allow Washington to play with lineups in the outfield on a nightly basis, keeping the starting outfield fresher throughout a long season.   The recent addition of backup catcher Jose Lobaton was an icing on the cake move to finish off upgrades to the roster.  Lobaton is a significant upgrade on the bench to Sandy Leon and Jhonotan Solano, who need more experience in the system.   Finally, the Nats severly lacked a strong lefty out of the bullpen last season.  In fact, they had none.  The acquisition of Jerry Blevins bolster the bullpen and provides the strong lefty they lacked.   Over the past two season with Oakland, Blevins has a combined 10-1 record with a 2.48 and a 3.15 ERA, respectively.

With the upgrades to the roster, the Nationals still enter spring training with some significant questions.

1.  Which Adam LaRoche will appear in 2014?  LaRoche smacked 33 homers and drove in 100 runs in 2012.  That tapered to 20 homers, 62 RBI and a sub-.240 batting average in 2013.  That was a significant reduction in production in the middle of the lineup.  With LaRoche under one final year of his two year deal, which LaRoche appears in 2014 will be significant.  I’d be happy with a happy middle ground between the two seasons.

2.  Will Danny Espinosa return to form and the battle at second base?  The Nationals missed the 21 homers from 2011 and 17 homers from 2012 from Espinosa.  A fractured wrist left Espinosa batting just .158 after 44 games and a permanent demotion to AAA last season.  This spring, manager Matt Williams has opened up a full competition between Espinosa and Anthony Rendon at second base.  We look for Rendon to win the job, but the competition will be fierce and hopefully make both player better.  It will be the most watched battle of the spring for Nats fans.

3.  How’s Zim’s shoulder?  Are the throwing woes of Ryan Zimmerman in the past?  Plagued by a bum shoulder, Zimmerman struggled at the plate and even worse on the field in the first half of 2013.  His throwing errors were costly as he continued to battle a bad shoulder.  A glimpse of a healthier Zimmerman appeared in the second half as the bad throws became less so and Zimmerman batted over .300 in the second half.  The question becomes, is Ryan Zimmerman over the shoulder problems permanently?

4.  Can Bryce Harper stay healthy?  This is the biggie.  Harper has the ability to put up monster numbers.  However, the ability to stay healthy for a full season has alluded Harper.   In 2012, he played 139 games and batted .270 with 22 homers and 59 RBI.  Last season, bothered by a hip and knee injury, Harper appeared in 118 games and still put nearly identical numbers, smacking 20 homers and driving in 58 runs.   What could Harper do in a full 162 game season?  The Nats would love to find out.   Harper is a major component to Washington’s offense and his health may dictate whether they overtake Atlanta in 2014.

5.  Who will secure the fifth rotation slot?  The first four slot int he rotation are likely the best in baseball, with Doug Fister joining Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez.  But, what about the fifth spot?   The good news is, Washington is not having a tough time making a decision because of lack of arms.  It is just the exact opposite.  They have three outstanding young talents that can easily secure the fifth slot and perhaps be the best fifth start in the majors.  Taylor Jordan, Ross Detwiler, and Tanner Roark are you fifth slot candidates.   First, Detwiler may be headed to the bullpen.  His inability to stay healthy may very well be the eliminating factor for him.   A top candidate will certainly be Jordan.  What a teriffic season he had last year before being shutdown late in 2013.     Jordan made 9 starts last year and posted a 1-3 record with a 3.66 ERA.   Jordan had a 5.1 strikeout to innings ration and a 1.9 walks to innings ratio.  However, how about the late season emergence of Roark.  When Jordan was shut down, Roark stepped in and made 5 starts and pitched in 14 games.    More impressive, he posted a 7-1 record with a lowly ERA of 1.51.  In 53.2 innings, he allowed 11 walks compared to 40 strikeouts.  Sweet numbers.  Along with second base, expect this to be a fierce battle between all three pitchers.