- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

VIERA, Fla. | Washington manager Jim Riggleman’s office was still basically empty Tuesday afternoon as team personnel, coaches and players shuffled past his door inside the Nationals’ spring training complex.

But positioned on top a handful of papers on his desk was the one item that will probably get more attention than anything he’ll touch over the next month and a half: A team roster.

Pitchers and catchers reported Tuesday to mark the official beginning of what Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has dubbed the second phase of the franchise’s building process.

“Everything’s important. If you’re gonna be a really good ball club, everything is important,” Riggleman said. “But as we are striving to be a really good ball club, we (also) know we haven’t put ourselves in that category yet. We won 69 ball games last year, so we don’t have the right to say we are really a good ball club. We are striving toward that.”

Riggleman said every good ball club has solid starting pitching. A big question mark for the Nationals.

“That’s what we’ll try to answer … in the spring. Is our starting pitching strong enough to make us arise in the standings. I think that’s gonna happen. But talking about it and thinking about it is one thing. And going out and doing it, that’s what it’s all about.”

The Nationals made a 10-game improvement to 69-93 last season, but still finished in the basement of the National League East. They didn’t go through a major roster overhaul, but generated offseason headlines with the moves they did make.

The addition of Bryce Harper gave the Nats the amateur draft’s top pick for the second straight year. They also signed free agent outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal and said goodbye to first baseman and cleanup hitter Adam Dunn, who signed with the Chicago White Sox.

That, coupled with the basically zero improvement to a less than stellar starting pitching rotation and the continued rehabilitation of phenom Stephen Strasburg from Tommy John surgery, has left the Nationals with many questions to answer before April.

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who had 25 home runs and a team-best .307 batting average last season, made what appeared to be critical comments of the Nationals’ management this offseason when he called Dunn’s departure “unfortunate.” He took a few steps back from that position on Tuesday.

“I never said I wasn’t happy with the team,” Zimmerman said. “It’s just, you have friends and you have teammates that you enjoy playing with. It happens everywhere. I was not, in any means, saying anything about the club or the organization. I think a lot of people thought I was.

“I was just expressing more frustrations at losing a teammate and a friend more than anything.”

Zimmerman’s locker was beside Dunn’s at spring training last year and Werth has taken Dunn’s spot in the clubhouse this year.

Zimmerman said he doesn’t know Werth personally, but welcomes his addition and championship experience coming over from the Phillies.

“It’s great anytime you can bring talent in,” Zimmerman said. “I think he’s a great player, he’s a consistent player. And that’s what we’ve said all the time. If you can get guys here that you know what you’re gonna get out of (them) every year — that’s what all the good teams have. You can pencil guys in for right about what you know they’re gonna do every year.”

Riggleman said the team’s offense is similar to what it was last season and thinks the defense will improve just based on the players getting another full season underneath them.

Riggleman said that for the first time since he took the management reins that he has confidence the pitching will improve simply based on his confidence that the defense will improve.

Left-hander Ross Detwiler, who has been somewhat of a disappointment since he was selected as the sixth overall in the 2007 draft, said he likes what he sees around him and is hoping to prove that he can help this team continue to grow this spring and beyond.

“Last year we were a young staff and kind of fed off of what (Livan Hernandez) was doing,” Detwiler said. “This year we have another year under our belt and I think a lot of exposure to major league hitters. And that’s gonna help more than anything else. We’re no longer gonna be the young staff. We’ve got some time now, so we’ll be out there to compete and I think we’ll do well.”

 

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