Questions remain for stacked Nats entering camp
Spring brings bench competition, focus on potential free agents, transition for infielders
VIERA, Fla. -- Pitchers and catchers report to Nationals camp on Thursday, and the expectations are high for from a team that won the National League East title a year ago.
First off, Washington's pitching staff is expected to be a dominating one. It helps that the club signed Max Scherzer to a long-term deal to complement returning stars Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister and Stephen Strasburg, creating a tough time for opposing hitters.
There will be no position battles as far as the starting eight is concerned, and everyone is expected to be healthy to start the season. Wilson Ramos, Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman missed a lot of time in 2014 because of injuries. Imagine how improved the offense will be with their names in the lineup every day.
But there are nonetheless questions as the team embarks on Spring Training, and here are three of the bigger ones.
1. Who is on the bench?
Nationals pinch-hitters had a .144 batting average in 2014, and Kevin Frandsen and Jose Lobaton are the only reserves guaranteed to return. The rest of the bench must be productive during Spring Training. Nate McLouth must show that he has recovered from shoulder surgery. Danny Espinosa, a switch-hitter who will exclusively hit right-handed, must stay consistent if he wants to stay on the team. Tyler Moore is out of Minor League options and could be traded unless he is productive and makes the club out of Spring Training.
Michael Taylor, who made his Major League debut last September, will get plenty of chances because of Jayson Werth's shoulder injury. If Taylor is productive, he could earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. Even infielder Emmanuel Burriss received a spring invite as the Nats look to bolster their bench. Burriss is coming off a solid season for Triple-A Syracuse. The club is also looking for a left-handed hitter to emerge, and Mike Carp could be the answer there.
2. How much focus will be on shortstop Ian Desmond and Zimmermann?
A lot, because both will be eligible for free agency after this season. It has been quiet so far, but one has to wonder if they will reach agreement with the team on contract extensions after turning down previous offers. It's hard to believe the Nationals would let Desmond and Zimmermann go. Desmond is one of the best shortstops in baseball, while Zimmermann is arguably the best pitcher in a star-studded Nats rotation. After watching Washington give Scherzer $210 million, Desmond and Zimmermann could net a piece of the pie for helping the team become perennial playoff contenders.
3. How will the changes on the right side of the infield affect the club?
First baseman Adam LaRoche and second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera are gone. Zimmerman and Yunel Escobar will replace them, respectively, and neither has played a full season at their new position. But the Nationals seem to think they will not have any problems. Zimmerman, a third baseman by trade, has played five games at first base, while Escobar, who has played most of his career at shortstop, has played 21 games at second.