Spring Record: 2-0
With an off-season that was both hit and miss, the Nationals have arrived in Viera, Florida, and have begun workouts and spring play for the 2011 season. In 29 days, the Nationals will open their season against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. Between now and then, though, let’s get ready for the drama of the springtime. The Nationals have some hard decisions to make between now and then, especially in the outfield. Let’s take a look at the state of things, shall we?
Thunderdome, er, Viera, Outfielders! There are 11 of you in camp, seven on the 40-man roster, and four more non-roster invitees. We’re fairly sure that Jayson Werth will be one of the five or six carried forward at the end of the month, and that means ten of you are fighting for four more slots. Bryce Harper, despite his presence on the 40-man won’t make it to Opening Day (sorry big guy, but congratulations on your first hit yesterday), so we’re down to 9.
Cut out Corey Brown, Jeff Frazier and Jonathan Van Every, who will start in AA/AAA and you’ve still got six men for four slots. Center Field isn’t necessarily a done-deal for Nyjer Morgan, especially if he has a start of the season that looks like last year’s awful .253/.319/.314, but he’s the favorite to take most of the starts. The other five men will be battling for an opening day slot. The questions: Can Laynce Nix still hit? Is Rick Ankiel going to get a platoon gig in left? Can Bernie handle Center? We’ll get some of these answers today, as that’s the starting outfield for the Nationals against the Marlins at 1:05pm today.
This is, at least, a clearer picture, if not a beautiful one. The Nationals’ rotation is a little more well-defined than its outfield travails, and it should be decently recognizable to the casual fan. ¡Livo! is back to start Opening Day, and he’ll likely be followed up by an innings-limited Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann will be on a season innings limit of 150-160 innings in his first full season back after Tommy John surgery, but that should still give him a solid 25 starts or so to acquit himself well. Jason Marquis is back in camp, and reportedly “Healthy and Determined to have a better season than last. John Lannan gets his first look at the Marlins this afternoon in his first spring start.
If you ask me, those are your four starting pitchers for the first two weeks of the season. When it comes to that fifth slot, you’re going to have another battle between Yunesky Maya, who tore it up in the Winter Leagues, and Tom Gorzelanny who came over from the Cubs in a trade this off-season.
There are, sadly, some injuries that the pitching staff will be working around this spring. Chien-Ming Wang is still not recovered, and the more I hear, the more I think he will never start a game for the Nationals.
The Bullpen: Fireball City
It’s entirely possible that the Nats could have two relievers that regularly who regularly top 100mph. Setup men Henry Rodriguez, just arriving after visa trouble, and Elvin Ramirez, also visa-delayed, have registered 100mph plus in their winter performances, and are just starting to get time in Viera. Add them in to the returning pair of Drew Storen and Tyler “Peaches” Clippard, and new arrival Todd Coffey, and you’ve got five solid arms in your bullpen. Add in Slaten and Burnett as LOOGYs, and you’ve got your seven.
Behind the Plate: Old and New
The Nationals have four solid catchers in camp. Pudge Rodriguez is back for the last year of his contract and has been named the number 1 in the depth chart. What follows behind is an interesting troika of qualified players in Jesus Flores (who spent a lot of time on the DL in 2009 and 2010), Wilson Ramos (a highly-ranked prospect from the Twins system acquired late last year) and Derek Norris, the Nationals current AA catcher Derek Norris (ranked #33 by ESPN’s Keith Law out of all MLB prospects). While it’s good to see that the Nationals are deep behind the plate, they really can’t take three of these guys to their opening day roster, and it’ll be Flores and Ramos in the night of the long knives.
Flores’ recovery has been a difficult one, but finally healthy, he makes an excellent backup to Pudge. A player of his caliber and years belongs in the majors, but at what point are you stunting the development of your future by keeping Ramos at Syracuse? I’d look for the Nationals to make a trade with either of these guys before mid-season, and possibly even before opening day.
You’ll notice I’ve said nothing of the infield so far, and that’s largely because it does exactly what it says on the tin. Ryan Zimmerman will return to his duties at third base and as leader of the squad on and off the field. Ian Desmond, whose errors may not have been the sum of the stat sheet’s definition, will return at shortstop. Danny Espinosa is poised for a breakout year at second base, and recently-signed Adam LaRoche will anchor the diamond at first.
Look for a good season from Chris Marrero in the minors, and Alberto Gonzalez and Jerry Hairston Jr to spell the starters on their off-days. It’s entirely possible we could see future ring-of-famer Matt Stairs (MLB’s most traded began his career as an Expo, you know. Please also don’t think I’m serious about the ROF.) make the team as an off-the-bench first-base/outfield flex player, as well.
The Bottom Line
It’s early yet. Everything’s still just names and data on the paper, but for two winning games against the Mets. We’ll be revisiting this preview, and setting up some predictions, between now and Opening Day. Spring games have finally started in earnest, and we’ll have a few smaller features as camp takes shape and the battles are won and lost between the foul lines.
Welcome back, Baseball, I’ve missed you.