- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fifteen years ago, a graduate of Burke’s Lake Braddock High School named Adam Butler had a terrific spring training for the Atlanta Braves.

In eight spring games, Butler had an earned run average of 0.93 to earn a spot on the team’s 25-man roster to start the regular season.

In four April appearances in real games, Butler’s ERA was 33.75.

He was sent down to the Triple-A Richmond Braves. A very bright guy, Butler summed up his experience in simple terms. Part of the problem was he was going against guys like himself in the spring, minor leaguers playing in the big-league arena. When the games started to count, he was facing another level of hitter. A much better level.

The point?

Enjoy baseball’s exhibition season for what it is, a sign the real thing isn’t far away. Do not put too much stock in anything that actually happens on the field.

The Nationals open the Grapefruit League season Saturday against the New York Mets. It’s the first of 34 exhibition games before the real deal begins April 1 at home against the Miami Marlins.

Between now and then, a lot is going to happen on the field. Little of it is going to matter, beyond players getting into “game condition” for the season.

Someone everyone expects to have a huge season is going to struggle and people will be tempted to worry. Don’t. He’s probably working on something.

Someone no one expects to be a factor is going to have a strong spring and people are going to wonder, “Is there a spot?” Don’t. See Adam Butler.

The Nationals have come so far since 2007, when a single spot in the rotation was determined going into the spring. John Patterson held that honor — and ended up with a 1-5 record and 7.47 ERA during the regular season. Reliever Jon Rauch led that team in victories. With eight.  

Every Nationals starter won at least 10 games last season. Four of them return and the team added Dan Haren through free agency. The only way another starter makes this team out of the spring is if someone gets hurt or traded (highly unlikely).

The eight position players are set. So is the bench. So is most of the bullpen.

So what can you watch during the spring, other than people playing their way into shape?

Watch Bill Bray.

A left-handed reliever (and, like Adam Butler, a product of William & Mary), Bray was traded by the Nats to Cincinnati in 2006. He developed into a pretty reliable pitcher but was limited by injury to just 14 games last season.

If he’s healthy and back to his previous form, the Nats will likely find a spot for him. How will they configure their bullpen if that happens? Do Ryan Mattheus or Craig Stammen get sent down, simply because they have an option left? Do the Nats give up on Henry Rodriguez, who has no options and will surely be snapped up by someone if the Nats try to send him down? Rodriguez’s elbow problem may put him on the disabled list to start the season, so making room for Bray could be simple. Until Rodriguez is healthy.

Watch Micah Owings.

It is almost inconceivable that he makes the team out of spring training, but he’s an interesting story. A former pitcher who could hit, he’s trying to make the team as a first baseman. Pitching is in his past. But even if he proves capable, where does he fit? The four projected noncatching bench players can play at least three positions each and two of them, Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy, can play first. And Owings isn’t knocking Adam LaRoche out of the everyday job at first.

Beyond that? Just watch the games and, like the players, get ready for the season. Remember, the Nats had an 0-10-1 stretch in March last spring. Mattered not a bit. They had the best record in baseball during the regular season.

The real season starts in 38 days. That’s the most important thing about Friday. The spring games are just a bridge to get you there.

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