The memory of a cold October evening at Nationals Park still seems fresh. Even as the calendar turned to February, the end of a season so charmed it solidified a fan base and announced the emergence of a legitimate contender didn't seem so far away.
But next week, as winter inches forward in the District, the signs of spring will be obvious several hundred miles to the south. The Washington Nationals will report to spring training, pitchers and catchers due in by Wednesday and the rest of the team by Saturday, as their quest for a better ending begins.
The goal this year is simple, as manager Davey Johnson has already laid out as plain as can be: World Series or bust.
Here are five storylines to watch as the Nationals go through six weeks of preparation for the 2013 season:
How will the bullpen jell?
The Nationals will have plenty of time to evaluate the best way to put their relief corps together, but their personnel — returning and newly acquired — makes some things a virtual certainty. They plan to have Rafael Soriano close and use Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard in setup roles. How both adjust to that will be something to watch.
That leaves Craig Stammen, Ryan Mattheus, Zach Duke, Christian Garcia, Henry Rodriguez, Bill Bray and Cole Kimball, among a handful of others, battling things out for the four remaining spots. Garcia will be stretched out to serve as starting depth at the outset, and Duke is a virtual certainty as a left-handed long man. Rodriguez is out of options and coming off elbow surgery. How he performs in camp will be important, and how the bullpen shakes out as a whole will be one of camp's few regular storylines.
How will Gio Gonzalez handle the Miami clinic/PED issue?
The Nationals' hopes for a seamless spring were thrown a significant wrench last week when Gonzalez's name surfaced in the records of a Miami anti-aging clinic believed to be connected to performance-enhancing drugs. Gonzalez has issued a firm denial of any use of PEDs and of any connection to the clinic, though his father has acknowledged being a patient there in an effort to lose weight.
But other than his initial statement, which was a strongly worded refutation, Gonzalez has been silent. He'll face the media for the first time when he reports to camp and how he handles the questions from there will be important. Major League Baseball is investigating the situation as well, and the possibility for suspensions does exist. Investigators will question Gonzalez, along with all of the players mentioned, including Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera and Nelson Cruz. And how much of a distraction that becomes for the usually affable left-hander — and his team — will dictate a lot of the spring.
How healthy are they?
Danny Espinosa's revelation that he played with a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder at the end of 2012 colored not only his September and October statistics differently but made for a very different offseason for the second baseman. He's rehabbed the tear, strengthening the muscles around it, and said two weeks ago his swing felt great. The Nationals do not expect him to have any restrictions, but it will be interesting to see how he fares in camp.
The same goes for Ryan Zimmerman, who had arthroscopic shoulder surgery in late October to clean out his acromioclavicular joint but is expected to be ready to go through a normal spring training, and Wilson Ramos, who is still recovering from a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee.
What does the starting pitching depth look like?
In an ideal world, when the Nationals break camp in late March their starting rotation will be Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren. But Gonzalez could face a suspension and teams expressed concern over Haren's hip and back when he was a free agent. The veteran right-hander passed his physical for the Nationals and said at the end of January that he was feeling great in his bullpen sessions.
Still, starting pitching depth is integral, and right now the Nationals are not as clear-cut as they could be in that department. Duke and Garcia are the two obvious choices, if needed, followed perhaps by Stammen, though he's had terrific success as a reliever. Yunesky Maya, Ryan Perry and Nathan Karns are in the mix after that, so it'll be interesting to see what the Nationals will do if the need for depth presents itself.
Will they be able to move on?
The end of the 2012 season was not just sour, it was stunning. And in the aftermath, the shock of the finality of it all took some time to wear off. The Nationals will face questions about their collapse in Game 5 of the National League Division Series this spring, but not allowing it to follow them into this season will be paramount to their success.
If it's 'World Series or bust' for 2013, the Nationals can't let busting to end 2012 affect them as they turn the page.
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