- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2012

If there was ever a winter to truly be had in the mid-Atlantic this offseason, it’ll come to an end Sunday for Washington Nationals fans when the team’s pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla.

So as nameplates are being hung over the lockers at Space Coast Stadium with care, let’s take a look at some of the top storylines for the Nationals in the most anticipated spring training since their 2005 relocation to Washington.

What will the Nationals do with all that starting pitching?

No fewer than eight viable starters will report to Viera on Sunday, and the Nationals know, somehow, they’ll have to get that number down to five by Opening Day. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson are all but guaranteed a spot barring an injury. The back end is where it gets interesting with Chien-Ming Wang, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler all battling it out for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Tom Gorzelanny can also serve as a starter but appears locked into a bullpen role.

The competition should be fierce for that No. 5 spot, and a trade is always a possibility, but here are the facts right now: Detwiler, who’d return the most in a trade, is out of minor league options; Wang’s injury history and need for routine appears to preclude him from bullpen work and, as a free-agent signee, he can’t be traded until roughly May 20; and Lannan, a starter his entire career, possesses one minor league option. Injuries happen — whether to the Nationals or another team that then ups the ante on a trade offer — but the numbers remain. The Nationals can only carry five pitchers in the rotation, and they’re over that limit.

Will Bryce Harper make the team out of camp?

Nationals manager Davey Johnson wants Harper on the team. General manager Mike Rizzo is a bit more hesitant. The best 25 will go north, they both agree, so this much is clear: Harper will have to prove he’s one of them day-in and day-out. He’ll have to prove it with his bat and with his baseball acumen in the field, at the plate and on the base paths.

He’ll also have to prove it in the clubhouse and away from the field with his demeanor, his maturity and his willingness to listen to longtime major leaguers who try to offer words of advice. Rizzo prefers for players to stop at every level of the minor leagues, and putting Harper on his roster on Opening Day would mean he skips Triple-A — while also making him a free agent an entire year earlier. Waiting about a month and allowing Harper to start the season in the minors would solve both of those issues. Ultimately, Harper’s performance will decide if he’s saying goodbye to buses and minor league parks and hello to packed houses and chartered flights.

Will the Nationals and Ryan Zimmerman work out a contract extension?

Both sides would like to, that much is certain, and they’ve been in communication about a new deal for roughly a year. Zimmerman would prefer not to negotiate during spring training or the season, but it’s a high priority for both to get a deal done.

The Nationals came into this offseason with extending Zimmerman, who is under contract until after the 2013 season, at the top of their to-do list. Not much progress has been made, outside of both sides being amenable to creative ways to structure the deal so it’s not prohibitive for the Nationals’ plans. The Nationals’ negotiating window may be closing right now. But if a deal isn’t worked out, they still have next offseason to do so, perhaps with new comparables for the third baseman. Many feel Zimmerman will be in the Matt Kemp (eight years, $160 million), Troy Tulowitzki (10 years, $157.75 starting in 2010) and Ryan Braun (five years, $105 million starting after 2015) class, but he’s also spent a significant part of two seasons on the disabled list. Though the Nationals don’t feel he’s an “injury risk,” the injuries are a part of his fabric as a major leaguer. A fully healthy season would go a long way for the third baseman.

Who’ll end up in center field?

The candidates for the center field position are Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina and Mike Cameron. None of them probably whip you into a frenzy about the potential at that position offensively. But there’s a loophole here, and it comes in the form of Bryce Harper. If Harper makes the team out of camp, Jayson Werth is the center fielder and the aforementioned trio is left battling for the fourth outfielder spot.

Harper is the lynchpin upon which this whole position is based. Barring an excessively persuasive performance by the 19-year-old this spring, however, chances are we could see Ankiel, Bernadina and Cameron splitting the time in center with Ankiel and Bernadina facing right-handed pitching and Cameron facing lefties — and all of them almost guaranteed to be doing it out of the No. 8 spot in the lineup.

Will Jayson Werth rebound from a career-worst 2011?

Truth is, we won’t have an answer to this one until long after spring training ends, but the feeling in the organization is that he will. Werth’s 2011 was one to forget in a lot of areas (most of them can be found in his offensive stat line). The hope, though, is that many of the factors that played into those struggles won’t be present in 2012. Ideally, he’ll have a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche and a slugging Michael Morse around him in the lineup, along with nonrookies Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos, providing more protection and alleviating some of the presumed pressure Werth felt in 2011.

Players with something to prove in 2012

Jayson Werth: A .232 average, .389 slugging percentage and 160 strikeouts aren’t what the Nationals invested in last offseason. A bounce-back year is paramount for the right fielder.

Ian Desmond: The shortstop made strides defensively in 2011, and more improvement will be looked for this season. But the first half of his season offensively left plenty to be desired. Desmond is going to be counted on to be the leadoff man he was for Washington in the season’s final six weeks — during which he hit .305, had a .342 on-base percentage and slugged .437. Desmond has two great allies in manager Davey Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo. He’ll have to show them their confidence is not misplaced.

Adam LaRoche: Over the offseason, as Prince Fielder-mania swept the D.C. area, LaRoche became an afterthought. The SLAP tear in his left labrum made his 2011 season one to forget, so it’s fair that most don’t remember LaRoche as the .271 average, 25-homer, 89-RBI man with a slick glove that he was for the five years before he arrived in Washington. The .172 average and powerless swings that came with the first two months of 2011 is fresh in their minds. LaRoche’s first task is to prove he’s healthy, and then that he’s the player the Nationals signed for $16 million last offseason.

Michael Morse: It might be a stretch to say Morse has to “prove” anything after an offensive season in 2011 that placed him among the league’s elite, but what Morse does have to do is show that one year wasn’t an aberration. His contract is taken care of through 2013, and he could be in line for an astronomical payday if he puts up two more seasons like his last.

Players who could surprise in camp:

Steve Lombardozzi: There’s a good chance Lombardozzi makes the Nationals’ major league roster as a utility infielder, but it’ll only happen if manager Davey Johnson feels he can get the highly touted Columbia, Md., native 350-plus at-bats. The Nationals’ middle infield is young and durable in Desmond and Espinosa. Johnson, though, could use Lombardozzi to keep everyone fresh in the hopes of playing meaningful games deep into the season.

Ross Detwiler: In the Nationals’ rotation battle, it may seem like Wang and Lannan have the upper hand on Detwiler simply because of experience. There’s no rule, however, against Detwiler having an exceptionally dominant spring training and forcing the Nationals to put him in the rotation.

Anthony Rendon and Matt Purke: The Nationals’ two newest draftees on the 40-man roster are in big league camp by virtue of the major league deals they signed in August. But neither truly has a shot of going north with the team. With injury questions surrounding the throwing shoulders of both, their performances this spring will be watched with a keen eye. How well they do could be an indicator of the level they’ll start at this season.

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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