- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

From Rodriguez to Ramos

The Nationals have made it clear that, while Ivan Rodriguez will be the team’s Opening Day starter, Wilson Ramos is going to get every opportunity thereafter to seize the starting catching job. Rodriguez, a surefire Hall of Famer, is 183 hits shy of becoming the first catcher in major league history to reach the 3,000-hit milestone, and his veteran presence and knowledge are invaluable to the Nationals‘ pitching staff. But Ramos has already been tabbed the team’s catcher of the future and has displayed the potential to become a force both at the plate and behind it. The only question now is when will the transition officially take place?

The process of finding a closer

The Nationals broke camp without a defined closer, and they’ll likely spend the first few weeks of the regular season trying to get one pitcher to take control of the role. The early money is on either Sean Burnett or Drew Storen stepping up to take the job, but it will be interesting to see if either those two or someone else (whether that’s someone already on the staff, someone up from Triple-A or a trade addition) emerges, and how long it’ll take them. The Nationals‘ bullpen was the most taxed in the National League last year, as Washington’s starters ranked 29th out of the 30 major league teams in pitching only 5.5 innings per game, but they put together an impressive 3.35 ERA as a staff and did well even after Matt Capps departed at the trade deadline. Can they repeat that success?

The wait for Harper

Bryce Harper has made a believer out of just about everyone who’s ever seen him play, but he’ll be getting his first consistent professional experience this year, and it will be interesting to see when and if he struggles. At just 18, Harper is one of the youngest players in the organization, but has yet to truly hit a stumbling block in his progression as the next big thing in Major League Baseball. He’ll start the year at Single-A Hagerstown, but there’s no telling where he’ll finish it - and yes, it could be in Washington.

The Strasburg-less rotation

There’s been a lot of talk about the glaring weakness atop the Nationals‘ rotation while Stephen Strasburg continues the slow process of rehabbing his right elbow following Tommy John surgery in September. But what often goes overlooked in lamenting that absence is that Jordan Zimmermann will be starting his first full season since returning from his own Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann has looked exceptional all spring, hitting around 94 mph with his fastball and showing good control over his slider and his curveball. There’s no telling what a fully healthy Zimmermann can do, and the Nationals are expecting a bounce-back season from Jason Marquis and average years out of Livan Hernandez, John Lannan and Tom Gorzelanny. Strasburg could reappear sometime in late August but, until then, the Nationals will be hoping those five - and perhaps Chad Gaudin, Ross Detwiler or Yunesky Maya - can make things as painless as possible.

What would Werth do?

Jayson Werth put together four straight impressive years as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, and he cashed in on them by signing a $126 million contract with Washington this off-season. Werth goes about his business as if he’s just another player, but it goes without saying that there is significant pressure on the recipient of the franchise’s largest financial commitment. He’ll bat second, at least at the start of the season, and be protected in the lineup by Ryan Zimmerman, but it’ll be noteworthy to see how he does this year and if his game changes now that he’s looked upon to be “the man” more so than he ever was in a stacked Phillies lineup.

Youth will be served in the infield

Ryan Zimmerman is 26, Ian Desmond 25 and Danny Espinosa 23. At age 31, first baseman Adam LaRoche is easily the elder statesman of the infield. Zimmerman’s not young when measured by experience, but with Desmond at short and Espinosa at second, the Nationals will have one of the youngest middle infield combinations in the major leagues. The potential for both is exceptionally high, and with LaRoche upgrading the defense at first base, seeing how Desmond, in his second year, and Espinosa, a rookie, work together should be exciting for Nationals fans - and, along with Zimmerman, a glimpse at what 75 percent of the infield could look like for years to come.



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