Nationals pitchers and catchers participated in their first workout on Thursday, marking the beginning of Spring Training 2021. The Nats made significant roster changes this offseason, and there will be plenty of new faces and storylines to follow at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla., over the next five weeks. From star players returning from injuries to new starters to top prospects in camp, let’s answer some of the biggest questions as the Nationals ramp up for Opening Day.
Given the pandemic, how is Spring Training going to be different this year?
Spring Training 2021 is starting later this year than in the past, with pitchers and catchers holding their first workout on Thursday, Feb. 18 and the first full-squad workout taking place on Tuesday, Feb. 23. Road travel for games has been cut down significantly, and the Nats will only play the Astros (with whom they share their ballpark), Cardinals, Marlins and Mets. Unlike previous years, all of the Nationals’ workouts will be closed to the public. Tickets for games at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches are available in pods of one to six seats, and everyone in the pod must know each other.
When is the first Spring Training game?
The Nationals will open their Spring Training action on Sunday, Feb. 28 at 1:05 p.m. ET, against the Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla. Their first home game is the following afternoon at 1:05 p.m., against the Astros.
Which injured players are eyeing comebacks?
Starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg threw only five innings last season before undergoing surgery to repair carpal tunnel neuritis in his right (pitching) hand. The Nationals have said they expect him to be healthy for this season, and his availability is key to the Nats’ rotation as the No. 2 starter. Second baseman Starlin Castro is returning from a broken right wrist, which sidelined him last August and required surgery. Manager Dave Martinez has described Castro as “full go,” and he is anticipated to assume the starting role this season.
What are the key roster/position battles to watch?
Fifth starter: Righty Joe Ross was the top candidate to earn the fifth starter role last season before he elected not to play, and he is eyeing that job again in 2021. Martinez said in December he would like Ross to be part of the starting rotation, but that doesn’t rule out competition for the role with Erick Fedde and Austin Voth. Both right-handers were starters last year and previously shared the fifth spot with Ross.
Backup outfielder(s): The starting outfield is set with Kyle Schwarber in left, Victor Robles in center and Juan Soto in right. Go-to backup Michael A. Taylor signed with the Royals this offseason, leaving a vacancy for the fourth outfielder. Andrew Stevenson finished last season on a high note with a 12-game hitting streak with the Nats, Gerardo Parra returns as a non-roster invite after playing last year in Japan, and Yadiel Hernández had a strong offseason in winter ball.
Third base: The hot corner continues to be Carter Kieboom’s starting job to earn. Like they did last year, the Nationals will give the 23-year-old the opportunity to secure the role in Spring Training. Unlike last year, they don’t have a clear backup. Utility man Josh Harrison has experience at third and -- looking at the NRIs -- veteran Hernán Pérez has played the majority of his games at the position.
Closer: The Nats bolstered their bullpen when they signed left-hander Brad Hand in free agency. Last season, Hand led all of baseball with 16 saves for Cleveland. This doesn’t mean Martinez couldn’t go with a closer-by-committee approach to include right-handers Daniel Hudson and Will Harris. Hand has said he is open to pitching any inning out of the ‘pen.
Who are some prospects to keep an eye on in camp?
Right-handers Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli, the Nationals’ 2019 and ‘20 top Draft picks, will be in West Palm Beach as non-roster invites. Both stood out at the alternate training site last season, and they are ranked as the Nats’ Nos. 1 and 2 prospects, respectively, by MLB Pipeline. No. 10 prospect, infielder Yasel Antuna, and No. 14 prospect, Joan Adon, were added to the 40-man roster this offseason as protection from the Rule 5 Draft.
When is Opening Day and who is the opponent?
The Nationals will host the Mets for an NL East showdown on April 1 at 7:09 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Who is the likely Opening Day starter?
Max Scherzer is in line to make his sixth Opening Day start for the Nationals -- and fourth in a row, though the Nationals are taking a cautious approach with the righty after he sprained his left ankle while conditioning two weeks before the opening of spring camp.
Scherzer is 12-5 with a 2.70 ERA over his career against the Mets.
What is the projected Opening Day lineup and rotation?
Trea Turner, SS
Juan Soto, RF
Josh Bell, 1B
Kyle Schwarber, LF
Starlin Castro, 2B
Yan Gomes, C
Victor Robles, CF
Carter Kieboom, 3B
Max Scherzer, RHP
Stephen Strasburg, RHP
Patrick Corbin, LHP
Jon Lester, LHP
Joe Ross, RHP
Brad Hand, LHP