- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Washington Nationals’ pitchers and catchers reported Wednesday to spring training West Palm Beach, Florida. They’ll hold their first workout Thursday and be joined by the rest of the team next Tuesday.

The defending World Series champions were overshadowed this offseason by the Houston Astros — with whom they share a training facility in Florida — and that franchise’s colossal sign-stealing scandal. While the Nationals haven’t been in the spotlight, they still have some big storylines to follow this spring:

The lineup, minus Rendon

Everyone will be watching Carter Kieboom, the Nationals’ top prospect, as he gets his shot to win the starting third baseman job vacated by Anthony Rendon this offseason. But even if Kieboom has a terrific rookie season, he isn’t expected to replace Rendon’s .598 slugging percentage, 126 RBI or 34 home runs from last year.

No, the middle of the Nationals’ lineup is perhaps the biggest question mark because there’s no obvious candidate to pair with Juan Soto at the No. 3 or 4 spot in the batting order.

The key batter to watch is Starlin Castro, the projected starting second baseman who signed with Washington in free agency. In 74 games after the All-Star break last year, Castro posted a .558 slugging percentage and .892 OPS with 16 home runs for the Marlins. There’s also fellow free agent arrival Eric Thames, who hit 25 home runs with the Brewers last year, but he doesn’t bat for average well and he’s expected to split time at first base with Ryan Zimmerman.

Bullpen upgrade

It’s a well-worn narrative by now, one that Nationals fans have memorized just as well as last year’s 19-31 start: The Nationals won the World Series despite having one of the statistically worst bullpens in the sport. This year, it may not have to be that way.

If 2019’s bullpen performance was good for anything, it helped the Nationals separate the Daniel Hudsons and Tanner Raineys from the Trevor Rosenthals and Kyle Barracloughs with an eye toward the future. So the Nationals re-signed Hudson this winter and added former Astros setup man Will Harris in free agency. On paper, a staff with Sean Doolittle, Hudson, Harris, Rainey and Wander Suero is at least above-average. Now they have to prove this won’t be a repeat of last year.

Finding a fifth starter

With Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez, the Nationals have one of the two or three best starting rotations in baseball. When the bullpen was still untrustworthy during the 2019 playoffs, these four carried the team deep, with some assistance from Doolittle and Hudson.

But Washington did not have a steady No. 5 starter in 2019, and that figures to be one of the key non-third base position battles to watch during spring training. Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth are all candidates for the job after each was given some starts in 2019. Of the three, only Fedde has the option of starting the year in the minors; Ross and Voth are out of minor-league options, meaning at least one will have to start the year in the bullpen.

Martinez, Rizzo extensions

With these Nationals, it always seems that there’s an unresolved contract situation. This season, it’s not a star player like Rendon or Bryce Harper entering the final year of his contract — instead, it’s both manager Dave Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo. Martinez has a club option for 2021, while Rizzo would become a free agent, so to speak, if his contract expired without an extension.

This is not an X’s and O’s question, but rather a front office one. Martinez survived calls for his firing last spring and exceeded expectations by managing Washington to its first title; Rizzo was the architect of that team. It won’t be cheap to retain them both, but it should get done one way or another.

World Series hangover

The Washington Capitals faced questions of a “Stanley Cup hangover” for an entire season after they lifted the Cup in 2018. They felt prepared for a repeat run. The result: They were still bounced out of the first round. But it’s also fair to point out that unlike hockey, baseball’s 162 games comprise the longest season in pro sports, and the Nationals proved last year that a slow start doesn’t mean a poor finish.

“We’re going to prepare for spring training like we have every other year,” Rizzo told MASN in December. “We’re not going to be complacent because we played an extra month of baseball. We’re not going to make any adjustments for preparations for our pitchers.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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