- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Waking up to another morning of “beautiful” falling snow, the post-screaming, post-hissyfit reaction Wednesday was a couple of questions:

When did the D.C. area become Alaska?

Can it please be March 31 already?

March 31 is the day the Nationals open their season against the Mets in New York, and everyone knows it isn’t allowed to snow once baseball season starts. That’s a rule, written down somewhere. It might even be a law.

It is, for anyone counting, four weeks from Monday.

Another sign that it is close is Grapefruit League games start Friday, when the Nats take on those same Mets in warmer Florida. Nothing like a little exhibition baseball to take your mind off slush and muck and snow and ice. The real deal, it’s coming soon.

As noted a year ago, the actual results in the spring mean nothing. The Nats could win three games. Doesn’t matter. They could win 23. Doesn’t matter. We aren’t going to learn a lot about Matt Williams‘ managerial style during the next month, though we may get a few hints. If Stephen Strasburg has an earned run average in double digits, it doesn’t matter as long as he is healthy. He’ll be the Opening Day starter no matter the spring numbers.

That doesn’t mean these spring games don’t serve a few useful purposes, besides reminding us that snowy mornings are soon to be gone. The Nationals have a few storylines worth watching.

Danny Espinosa. For one set of eyes at least, this could be the most intriguing story of the spring. Once seen as the future fixture at second base, Espinosa is back in prove-it mode after dealing with some injuries and a free-falling batting average. The guy who hit 38 home runs in a two-season span spent most of last year in the minors and is now competing with Anthony Rendon for his old job.

A healthy Espinosa is a much better defensive option, though not a better option overall if he’s lugging around a .150 batting average.

Healthy, he won’t. Some time with Rick Schu, who took over as hitting coach after Espinosa was exiled to Syracuse, will help. Espinosa doesn’t have to hit .300, but if he can hang in the .240-.250 range, play defense like he’s able and provide some pop, he ought to be the team’s second baseman.

The fifth starter. Whichever pitcher ends up with this job isn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme. It will probably change several times over the course of a season, particularly if injuries take a toll. It’s still worth watching as it may, just may, provide some insight into what Williams is looking for in his rotation.

By rights, Ross Detwiler should have first dibs. He’s proven when healthy (see a theme here?), he can win at this level and he’d provide a second lefty along with Gio Gonzalez in the rotation. He may, though, be ticketed for a spot in the bullpen as a long reliever/spot starter type.

Taylor Jordan will start the preseason opener Friday, which is in no way a tea leaf to read with regard to the real rotation. Tanner Roark earned a good look with his very strong showing at the end of last season.

Again, this one is not really that big a deal. All three will probably get chances to start over the course of the season.

The makeup of the bullpen. This figures to be very interesting because of a nagging feeling that it isn’t going to do down quite like anyone thinks. If there’s a surprise move this spring, it will come from among this group.

But until that happens, five of the seven bullpen slots figure to be spoken for already with Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Craig Stammen and lefty Jerry Blevins.

That leaves a pretty big number of candidates fighting for two spots. Where does Ross Ohlendorf fit? Christian Garcia? Ryan Mattheus? Because he’s a lefty, Detwiler to the pen may make a little more sense so Williams isn’t left with just one option from that side. Does lefty Xavier Cedeno have any shot? At whose expense?

That’s the most confusing puzzle of the spring, but it will work itself out somehow. One of them may get hurt. Hopefully not, but it happens. General manager Mike Rizzo may already be working on a trade. The Nats don’t really have any major holes, but those GMs love to tinker and Rizzo definitely has some spare parts with his bullpen.

Soon enough, we’ll know how everything works out. Soon enough, all the questions will be answered and the games will be real.

Soon enough, there won’t be any more snowy mornings.

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