With a couple of spring training games already under their belt, the 2012 Washington Nationals are primed for a run at a potential wild-card spot in this year’s playoffs. Whoever said that spring training doesn’t mean anything is sadly mistaken. Here are five keys for this team going forward before the regular season opener against the Cubs on April 5th.
1. Health: Last spring, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman tweaked his abdominal and it seemed like it was going to be a little bump in the road during a long season. Playing through the injury, he re-aggravated it and underwent surgery, missing a significant amount of time. Even when he was back, Z-Pack wasn’t at 100% and his on-field performance indicated that. First baseman Adam LaRoche strained his shoulder in the spring and also re-injured it early in the year, missing almost the entire year, also going under the knife. Health is important for this team because it doesn’t have much depth on offense. If they want to make a serious run at the playoffs, they’ll need all their horses healthy and ready to go.
2. Maturation of Bryce Harper: You know the deal by now with Harper. He’s only 19, but has a legitimate shot at making the opening day roster with the Nats. What’s holding him back off the field is his maturation. Will he be able to handle all the media hype surrounding him and the team day in and day out? Here’s a guy less than eight months ago, blew a kiss at an opposing pitcher after going yard off of him. Bryce has been through a spring training before, but never had a chance last year of making the team. There are some positive strides being made though. He’s signing autographs, interacting with the fans, and is answering most questions in a positive light. During batting practice, he wanted to face Stephen Strasburg and said he didn’t even care if he swung and missed. From a guy with a huge ego, that’s a step in the right direction.
3. Development of middle infield: Second baseman Danny Espinosa lit up the National League during the first half of 2011. His 16 homers and 52 RBI led all rookies and looked like a runaway Rookie of the Year. His second half was beyond terrible with the bat and he seemed to press in the field as well. Shortstop Ian Desmond was expected to make big strides, but still wound up with a mediocre year, despite raking during the season’s final two weeks. These two players have to show more plate discipline and not rush while playing defense. They are both solid players and still young enough to break out of bad habits. I’d like to see Espy just hold onto the ball when there is no chance at throwing a defender out at first base instead of throwing the ball away. For Desmond, he should try to hit more line drives instead of grounding out to short (or striking out) every at-bat.
4. Adam LaRoche’s recovery: We all know how much I love LaRoche and his power potential and defensive ability at first, but he’s coming off shoulder surgery and hasn’t played in a major league game since May. Now word is that he feels pain while making throws, but luckily, he doesn’t play a position where you have to throw a lot. The Nationals have a right-handed heavy lineup, so it’s even more significant he comes close to the 25 HR, 80 RBI player he’s was for years with the Braves. Desmond and Espinosa should see their error totals decrease since LaRoche could make picks on bad throws that Michael Morse couldn’t last year. He’s also a veteran who’s been in the playoffs, so his experience will help a lot.
5. Finding a bridge to Storen: Tyler Clippard has been the most reliable non-closer reliever in baseball the last two seasons, but he’s been overworked. Drew Storen had a phenomenal first year as the 9th inning guy and looks to build on a solid season. The problem is that after the starter leaves the game, who will get the outs before the Clippard/Storen duo take the mound? The acquisitions of Brad Lidge and Ryan Perry give the Nats two options, but one is declining and the other is inconsistent. Henry Rodriguez throws the hardest in the league, but has trouble throwing strikes. One of these three guys needs to step up and make sure Clip doesn’t have to get 4-6 outs every appearance. It’s even more significant because for the second year in a row, Washington will have a starter on an innings limit (Strasburg), meaning every fifth day, the bullpen will have to get nine outs.
I have faith in manager Davey Johnson. He’s a great baseball guy that’s seen almost everything there is to see about the game. Under his leadership, it’s possible this organization could be playing meaningful baseball in October for the first time since 1981. This squad is certainly capable of those expectations, but it all starts with improvements in spring training