When the Washington Nationals' pitchers and catchers report on Tuesday, there will be a number of things that fans, players and coaches alike will be looking for, especially with the team coming off of its best season in franchise history.
The starting rotation for the Nats couldn't be any more solid than it is heading into spring training, but everyone will still be focused on the team's ace, Stephen Strasburg, who is coming off of a shortened season due to rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery.
Strasburg followed a strict innings count last season, but the No. 1 starter for Washington said he hopes to throw 200 or more innings this season, 40 more than he was scheduled to pitch last year.
Despite recovering from the surgery, Strasburg finished the season with a 15-6 record and a 3.16 ERA and fanned 197 batters.
It will be interesting to see how the former No. 1 draft pick for the Nationals responds to his shortened season and if his elbow is 100 percent heading into 2013.
Behind Strasburg in the pitching lineup is Gio Gonzalez, who is also facing his fair share of distractions heading into spring training. Gonzalez was linked to an anti-aging clinic in Miami, Fla., that allegedly supplied performance-enhancing drugs to a number of major league players.
If Washington wants to finish better than last season, they'll need Gonzalez to repeat last year's performance, when he finished 21-8 with a 2.89 ERA and 207 strikeouts.
Gio Gonzalez @GioGonzalez47
I've never used performance enhancing drugs of any kind and I never will ,I've never met or spoken with tony Bosch or used any substance1/29/2013, 4:47:43 PM
Gonazlez will miss a few weeks of spring training when he takes part in the World Baseball Classic as a part of Team USA, but when he first reports, it's important that Gonzalez takes any questions he may face regarding the PED allegations in stride.
The newest edition to the powerful rotation is Dan Haren, who the Nationals signed in December to a one-year, $13 million deal.
While there's no questioning Haren's ability as a pitcher, there are concerns over his injury history. Haren pitched through back and hip injuries last season, but was able to pass the team physical before being signed.
Haren will either be the third or fourth starter in the rotation, depending upon how he stacks up against Jordan Zimmermann in spring training, and Ross Detwiler will likely be the No. 5 starter.
Haren, a former Los Angeles Angel, has a career .551 win percentage, but finished last season with his worst record and ERA in three years.
Washington will want to keep a close eye on his injuries, but if healthy, he could easily fit right in to the rotation.
Outside of the starting rotation, there are also a number of things that the Nats will have to look for when pitchers and catchers report in their bullpen.
The battle for the closer position will likely be the most heated contest in spring training, as there are three viable candidates that Washington could go with on Opening Day.
With the addition of Rafael Soriano, the defending National League East champions have three possible closers, including Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen.
Soriano is the most likely candidate, considering Washington gave him a two-year, $28 million contract, although Clippard and Storen make compelling arguments.
Clippard had 32 saves last season, finishing with a 3.72 ERA and 1.156 WHIP.
Storen missed the majority of the 2012 season due to injury and spent the time that he was active setting up for Clippard. He still had some solid outings, appearing in 37 games and striking out 24 batters en route to a 2.37 ERA.
Storen will need to show some mental toughness, though, as he is likely still haunted from the ninth inning in Game 5 of the National League Division Series in which he gave up four runs and blew a save against the St. Louis Cardinals, forcing the Nats to make an early exit from the playoffs.
If Storen can remain physically and mentally tough, though, there could be a great battle for closer coming in spring training.
These three pitchers will make up one of the strongest late-inning bullpens in the league, but Zach Duke will likely fill the role of a long reliever in the event that a starter struggles.
Duke was called up from Class AAA Syracuse on Sept. 3 last year after putting up a 15-5 record, and he appeared in eight games for the Nats, finishing the season with a 1.32 ERA.
With the loss of Tom Gorzelanny, Duke will be the best long reliever option for the Nationals, who hope that Duke will stick to his rookie form from 2005 with the Pirates, when he went 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA.
Following that season, Duke went into a slump, never finishing with an above-.500 record between 2006 and 2011.
Duke could prove to be the unsung hero of the bullpen if he returns to his old form, and could potentially fill in should one of the starters succumb to injury.
There'll be no shortage of story lines as the Nationals head into spring training, and many of them will begin to play out as soon as the team's pitchers and catchers report.
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