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Nats counting on strong staff, improved 'D' this spring

Washington hopes to ride pitching back to playoffs in Williams' first year as skipper

WASHINGTON -- Unlike predecessor Davey Johnson, Nationals manager Matt Williams hasn't made any bold predictions about going to the World Series this season. Instead, Williams is looking to improve a team that finished in second place behind the Braves a year ago in the National League East.

Not long ago, Williams said he wanted to improve the defense and score more runs.

"One, we have to be better than 13th in the league in defense," Williams said. "We have the ability to be better than that, much better than that. There's a lot of factors that go into that, of course, but it's something that we want to put an emphasis on. We want to get to [Spring Training] and say, 'Here's the plan, let's try to go execute that plan.'

"Offensive efficiency has been talked about a million times, but it's true. [Hitting coach] Rick Schu is very in tune with that and he's excited to get back to Spring Training. He had half a year with these guys, and they made great improvement. But he's excited about that prospect and scoring some more runs."

Williams finds himself with an excellent rotation and a solid bullpen, both made only better after general manager Mike Rizzo added Doug Fister and Jerry Blevins.

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 13

Full squad reports

Feb. 18

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Mets, Feb. 28, 1:10 p.m. ET

Opening Day

Away vs. Mets, March 31, 1:10 p.m. ET

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Who will be the everyday second baseman for the Nationals?
Williams and Rizzo have said it's a competition between Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa, but one can't help but think it's Rendon's job to lose. He is coming off a nice rookie season and was above average with the glove. Espinosa has a lot to prove after spending most of the season with Triple-A Syracuse. He is an excellent second baseman, but must show he can hit on a consistent basis and cut down on his strikeouts.

2. Who will be the fifth starter in the rotation?
Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan and Ross Detwiler will battle for the final spot. Detwiler missed most of last season because of a bad back. He is 100 percent entering Spring Training, but the Nationals have not ruled out putting Detwiler in the bullpen. If he starts, the Nats would like to see him to use his curveball more often.

Jordan was on an innings limit last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011. He pitched a combined 142 innings in the Major and Minor Leagues, won 10 games and had a 1.96 ERA. Jordan's biggest goal is to start next year with the big league team and pitch a full season for the first time in his professional baseball career.

During the last two months of the season, Roark was arguably the best pitcher on the team, winning seven games with an ERA under 2.00. If he doesn't make the team as a starter, Roark most likely will be a long reliever.

3. Who will be Washington's backup catcher?
The Nationals have four catchers -- Koyie Hill, Chris Snyder, Sandy Leon and Jhonatan Solano -- on their Spring Training roster vying to be Wilson Ramos' understudy. The Nats are looking for a productive catcher in case Ramos goes down with an injury. The club still has interest in Rays catcher Jose Lobaton.

2013 record
86-76, second place in the NL East

Projected batting order
1. CF Denard Span:
.279 BA, .327 OBP, .380 SLG, 4 HR, 47 RBI in 2013
2. 3B Ryan Zimmerman:
.275 BA, .344 OBP, .465 SLG, 26 HR, 79 RBI in 2013
3. LF Bryce Harper:
.274 BA, .368 OBP, .486 SLG, 20 HR, 58 RBI in 2013
4. RF Jayson Werth:
.318 BA, .398 OBP, .532 SLG, 25 HR, 82 RBI in 2013
5. 1B Adam LaRoche:
.237 BA, .332 OBP, .403 SLG, 20 HR, 62 RBI in 2013
6. SS Ian Desmond:
.280 BA, .331 OBP, .453 SLG, 20 HR, 80 RBI in 2013
7. C Wilson Ramos:
.272 BA, .307 OBP, .470 SLG, 16 HR, 59 RBI in 2013
8. 2B Anthony Rendon:
.265 BA, .329 OBP, .396 SLG, 7 HR, 35 RBI in 2013

Projected rotation
1. Stephen Strasburg, 8-9, 3.00 ERA in 2013
2. Jordan Zimmermann, 19-9, 3.25 ERA in 2013
3. Gio Gonzalez, 11-8, 3.36 ERA in 2013
4. Doug Fister, 14-9, 3.67 ERA in 2013
5. Tanner Roark, 7-1, 1.51 ERA in 2013

Projected bullpen
Closer: Rafael Soriano, 43/49 saves, 3.11 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Tyler Clippard, 2.41 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Drew Storen, 4.52 ERA in 2013

The new guys
LHP Blevins: The Nationals were able to acquire Blevins from the A's during the Winter Meetings. He will be one of the lefties in the bullpen. Blevins had a 3.15 ERA for the Athletics last season, allowing lefties to hit .253 against him. His best season was 2012, when he went 5-1 with a 2.48 ERA and held lefty hitters to .182 batting average. Blevins has a fastball that can go from 89 to 92 mph. He also has an above-average changeup.

OF Nate McLouth: He will platoon with Scott Hairston as the fourth outfielder. When he gets a chance to play, McLouth is expected to hit near the top of the batting order. McLouth is a player who can provide power and speed. He is also an above-average defender, which is an upgrade from what the Nats had last season in Roger Bernadina, who often misjudged fly balls before being released during the season.

RHP Fister: The 29-year-old went 14-9 with a 3.67 ERA for the Tigers last season, striking out 159 and walking 44 in 208 2/3 innings. Fister combined with Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez to give Detroit a highly productive starting staff. With addition of Fister, Washington has arguably the best rotation in the NL East.

INF Jamey Carroll: The Nationals are looking to improve their bench, and Carroll could be a good fit. He can play every infield position except first base and has dabbled in the outfield. Carroll decided to return to the Nats after having a phone conversation with Williams, who expressed the importance of defense.

INF Mike Fontenot: He is best known for his seasons with the Cubs and Giants. Fontenot last played in the big leagues in 2012 for the Phillies. He spent the entirety of last season with Triple-A Durham, a Rays affiliate, and hit .264 with four home runs and 42 RBIs. Fontenot's best season was with the Cubs in '08, when he hit .305 with a .395 on-base percentage in 119 games.

Prospects to watch

OF Brian Goodwin: Goodwin led the Eastern League with 11 triples and was third in the league with 82 runs scored in 122 games last year for Double-A Harrisburg. Goodwin could be Washington's starting center fielder by 2015.

LHP Sammy Solis: Fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, Solis recently led the Arizona Fall League in wins (5) and strikeouts (29) while posting a 2.17 ERA in seven starts. The 25-year-old has a career mark of 10-4 with a 3.20 ERA in 33 games spanning three professional seasons. The Nats consider Solis a future starter, but if he makes the team out of Spring Training in 2014, he could serve as one of the lefties out of the bullpen.

OF Michael Taylor: Recently put on the 40-man roster, Taylor could challenge Goodwin as the team's center fielder of the future. In 2013, Taylor hit .263 with a career-high 57 extra-base hits (41 doubles, six triples, 10 home runs), 87 RBIs and 51 stolen bases in 133 games with Class A Advanced Potomac. He was the Nationals' sixth-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft and is considered the fourth-best prospect in the system.

LHP Matt Purke: Washington's seventh-best prospect in 2013, according to, Purke stayed healthy and won a combined six games with a 3.80 ERA between Class A Hagerstown and Potomac. He also won three games and had a 3.91 ERA in the Arizona Fall League.

OF Steven Souza: He missed a lot of time last year because of injuries, but was solid at the plate when he was able, hitting .300 with 15 home runs, 44 RBIs and a .396 on-base percentage for Double-A Harrisburg.

On the rebound
LHP Detwiler: His position as a starter is up in the air. There is a good chance Detwiler could end up in the bullpen.

INF Espinosa: He is coming off the worst season of his career. Espinosa struck out a combined 148 times in 441 at-bats for the Nats and Triple-A Syracuse. There is a good chance he will be a backup infielder to start the season.

RHP Christian Garcia: Johnson wanted to make Garcia a starter last year, but Garcia never got the chance because of forearm and hamstring injuries. He will try to win a spot on the Major League roster as a reliever this year.

1B LaRoche: He had one of the toughest seasons of his Major League career last year. It didn't help that LaRoche lost 15 to 20 pounds during the second half of the season. It was believed, at first, that he was losing the weight because of the flu. But LaRoche revealed that the weight loss was caused by the medication he was taking for attention deficit disorder (ADD).

RHP Ryan Mattheus: He was supposed to be one of the workhorses in the bullpen, but he broke his right hand after punching a locker last May in San Diego. When Mattheus returned to action, he had a tough time getting hitters out and was eventually sent to the Minor Leagues. After he returned to the big leagues, he still had problems on the mound.

RHP Storen: A stint in the Minor Leagues turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When he returned to the Nationals, Storen had a 1.40 ERA in his final 21 games.

Long gone
LHP Fernando Abad: His respectable 3.35 ERA doesn't tell the whole story. Left-handed hitters had a .306 batting average against Abad. Johnson stopped using him in critical situations in September because of that reason. Abad was traded to the A's last November for outfielder John Wooten.

RHP Dan Haren: He went 10-14 with a 4.67 ERA, but had a respectable 3.29 ERA after coming off the disabled list on July 8. During the offseason, Haren signed with the Dodgers.

LHP Eric Krol: He was shipped to Detroit in the Fister deal. Krol got off to a great start with the Nats, allowing two runs in 11 2/3 innings during the month of June. After that, he had a 5.74 ERA and Johnson stopped using him after Sept. 17.

INF Steve Lombardozzi: He was the Nationals' best bench player last year, but was dealt to the Tigers for Fister. Lombardozzi could play at least five positions, including the corner outfield spots and three infield positions.

INF Chad Tracy: He was the leader of the Goon Sqaud, but slumped badly in 2013.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats.
Read More: Washington Nationals, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan