- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The hunt for the postseason in a stacked National League East Division begins Wednesday, when Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers report to The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Their first official workout takes place Thursday, before the full squad joins Feb. 23.

The Nationals are coming off a 26-34 season, but they won the World Series in 2019 — the most recent 162-game campaign. Many of the players from that title-winning team have departed, but there were several offseason additions to the core group.

General manager Mike Rizzo bolstered the starting rotation by adding left-hander Jon Lester. He introduced Brad Hand to the back end of the bullpen. Rizzo traded for first baseman Josh Bell and signed left fielder Kyle Schwarber, inserting additional pop to the lineup.

Those moves seem to position Washington well despite the reloading other division rivals undertook this offseason. But before meaningful games are played and expectations become reality, spring training gives a glimpse at how the Nationals’ roster will shake out.

Here are three storylines to track entering spring training.

Rotational strength

Washington has long been oriented around a stellar starting rotation, and despite adding a few big bats, that focus remains.

Rizzo signed the 37-year-old Lester to be the team’s fourth starter, hoping the former Chicago Cubs ace rediscovers his consistency. The battle for the fifth starting role will continue throughout spring training, with Austin Voth, Erick Fedde and Joe Ross the likeliest options to emerge with that duty.

But there are questions surrounding some of the Nationals’ most dominant arms — mainly, will Stephen Strasburg return to his 2019 form after undergoing carpal tunnel surgery? Strasburg’s 2020 campaign ended after just five innings, but Rizzo said he should be ready to go once he begins official workouts Thursday.

“He began his throwing program a couple weeks ago and he’s progressing nicely,” Rizzo said in December, “so we feel that he should be full-go by the beginning of spring training.”

Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin also regressed from their 2019 performances in last year’s 60-game slate, with their ERAs rising to 3.74 and 4.66, respectively. They both gave up more than one home run on average per nine innings and their WHIPs rose. The Nationals’ starting pitcher ERA of 5.38 was the fourth worst in the majors last season.

For Washington to get back on track in 2021, plenty rides on that group leading the way.

Carter Kieboom or bust?

When the Los Angeles Dodgers re-signed Justin Turner on Saturday, the domino effect reached the Nationals. Turner was an obvious option in case the team wanted to bring in a proven veteran at third base.

Instead, Carter Kieboom appears to have a second chance at a first impression.

Last year, Kieboom entered as the starting third baseman, with the task of replacing Anthony Rendon — or, at least, papering over the cracks. Kieboom was demoted to Washington’s alternate training site midway through the season, though.

He hit .202 with a .344 on-base percentage and nine RBIs in 33 games. That was an improvement on his lowly .128 average in 11 contests in 2019. His defense, too, was suspect. Kieboom had four errors in 10 games while playing shortstop in 2019 before finishing with a .966 fielding percentage at third base last season.

The 23-year-old enters spring training with a prime opportunity ahead of him to secure the position.

“I talked to him, and I told him, “Hey, you’re our future third baseman, and the future is now. So you’ve got to come to spring training, be ready to go and the job is yours, but you’ve got to earn it,’” manager Dave Martinez said in December. “He knows that. Moving forward, hopefully he comes to spring training ready to go.”

Starlin Castro returns

The Nationals hardly had a chance to experience life with Starlin Castro at second base last year before the 30-year-old broke his wrist and missed the remainder of the season. Prior to his injury, Castro hit .267 with two homers in 16 games.

Castro’s absence meant 20-year-old Luis Garcia earned an early promotion to the bigs, and he performed well, with a .276 average in 40 games. But the return of Castro to the lineup gives Washington a proven commodity — he holds a career .733 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, higher than Garcia’s .688 mark from last year.

Castro could also play third base, if the Nationals are in a pinch, opening up a spot for Garcia in the lineup. However it shakes out, Castro has seen his OPS dip below .729 just twice in his 11-year career. He’s consistent, if not standout, which should boost Washington’s batting order.

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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