- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

VIERA, Fla. — Temperatures in Florida’s midsection moved into the high 70s on Wednesday. In Washington, the remnants of another late snowstorm broke down, pooled, then dribbled off the streets. The recent weather there does not put forth a spring vibe, and certainly not a baseball one, but the Washington Nationals’ pitchers and catchers were slated to report to Space Coast Stadium on Thursday.

The Nationals did not spend more than $200 million on a pitcher this offseason. They also did not make late winter moves to acquire a starting positional player for a longtime reliever, like last season. Their moves have occurred on a lower scale. The bullpen has been reworked. The middle of the infield was realigned following the signing of Daniel Murphy. Washington has taken grand measures to overhaul its medical staff after much of last season was lost to injuries.

Since spring is here, at least in Florida, let’s take a look at five storylines to watch:

A Full Season For Papelbon

Each time it’s repeated, the idea seems unfathomable: Papelbon choked National League MVP Bryce Harper in the dugout at the end of last season. Multiple layers of the Nationals‘ organization have tried to snuff out any insinuation that Papelbon is a bad teammate or that the episode will have a lasting effect. Starting pitcher Max Scherzer scoffed at the idea that the clubhouse had fissures. General manager Mike Rizzo decided to keep Papelbon and trade Drew Storen, showing that he thought all would be fine with the closer and the young star.

Within the organization, Papelbon’s return clearly signals that Harper is past what happened last season. Were he not, Papelbon would be elsewhere. So, what does he represent? For years, Papelbon, who does little to quell the wild-card perception of him and a lot — from entrance music to mound demonstrations — to boost it, has been a steady closer. Mentioning Papelbon’s name in front of Rizzo will always prompt the general manager to point out two things: Former teammates love him, and, Papelbon has been on the mound to close a World Series.

The playoff success is the main reason Washington chose Papelbon over Storen.

Differences With Dusty

At NatsFest over the winter, new manager Dusty Baker was shaking hands with and meeting many of his players for the first time. He sat at an autograph table with new reliever Trevor Gott, two people in different career stages settling into their new home.

Talking about the offseason hiring of Baker has produced an endless amount of colorful stories surrounding the multi-faceted manager. In spring training, his teaching techniques and personality will begin to pervade actual baseball work. A stigma that has stuck to Baker from his prior managerial stops is criticism about how he handles a pitching staff. Scherzer should be a non-issue. But, Baker will need to figure out how to manage emotional Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross in his first full major-league season and Tanner Roark’s return to the rotation.

New bullpen roles will have to be outlined. Also, how he approaches baserunning, something the Nationals were poor at last season and Baker has harped on since being hired, is another element to watch this spring.

Managing Health

Stephen Strasburg sprained his ankle by stepping on a weight last spring. Just a sprain, no big deal. Anthony Rendon dove for a groundball, bounced his knee off the dirt and was expected to be out for a couple days. Precautionary.

Instead, the injuries stifled both, and, subsequently the team, throughout the season. Strasburg had a bad start to the season, which helped lead to the team doing the same. The “knot” that developed in the pitcher’s upper back during the season may have been a result of slightly changing his delivery to compensate for the ankle problem. Rendon’s knee problem seemed neverending. After finishing fight in MVP voting in 2014, Rendon finished with a .707 OPS in 355 at-bats.

Washington was so concerned with the rampant health problems, it overhauled the training staff. The Nationals even went so far as to hold a press conference to tout the new medical people who will be handling their players this spring. The moves made clear where the team felt much of the blame for last season’s injury-filled effort rested.

Who’s Not Here

The biggest influence on the Nationals‘ clubhouse could well come from who is no longer there. Shortstop Ian Desmond, starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, reliever Craig Stammen and Storen all came up through the organization. They are gone, as is Denard Span.

Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth remain as the elder voices of the clubhouse, but the personality of the Nationals is being turned over to Harper and Scherzer, each of which are under contract for at least three more years, including the coming season.

The departure of so many long-term members of the organization, coupled with the arrival of Baker, will change the vibe in the Nationals‘ often staid clubhouse, especially with Harper and Scherzer now as lead influencers. The former is just 23 years old. The latter is a known prankster. Will they, coupled with Baker, produce a looser clubhouse? Or will the Nationals‘ overarching organizational vibe that is so rooted in a structured, corporate feeling win out?

Expectations Tempered

Harper has not mentioned rings of any kind this offseason. His answer of, “Where’s my ring?” when asked for his reaction to the Scherzer signing last season only added to the heaps of pressure on the Nationals, who entered spring training last year as the World Series favorites.

As the season went along, Washington felt it would put together a run to move into the playoffs. Month after month went by without a surge, though they were in first place 64 days during the season. Eventually, the New York Mets put together a push — influenced in large part by a home sweep of the Nationals — that landed the division title and preceded a World Series appearance.

The Nationals are projected to be a contender, if not spectacular team this season — Las Vegas has them seventh, at 15-1, to win the World Series. Internally, they feel the roster has plenty to challenge and perhaps surpass the Mets. At the least, they will be starting from a different point than last season. They are now the pursuer, not the ones sitting in a spring training throne.

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