2011 Spring Training: Washington Nationals in for Another Interesting Spring

Steven RuizContributor IIFebruary 16, 2011

WASHINGTON - JULY 01:  Nyjer Morgan #1 of the Washington Nationals bunts for a single in the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Nationals Park on July 1, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Nationals won the game 2-1.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

It was 60 degrees in DC Monday, and on Tuesday Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training.

It’s official: Baseball’s back.

And, once again, the Nationals’ camp will be a focus point for all of the Baseball Universe. Bryce Harper, who dazzled in the Arizona Fall League, batting .343 with 6 extra-base hits in seven games against prospects on the brink of being Major League starters, has as much hype as Stephen Strasburg did in 2010.

It will be very interesting to see how the teenager is able to handle the attention. He should be used to it by now; after all, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16.

Once upon a time, it was Jordan Zimmermann who was creating buzz in Viera. Since the arrivals of Strasburg and Harper, Zimmermann has taken a back seat. But he still remains the best young National who will actually play in 2011, and it will be interesting to see how far he has come since coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2009.

The Nationals need Zimmermann to be a front line starter after failing to acquire one in the offseason.

The Nationals also need John Lannan to continue a hot finish to his up-and-down 2010 season. For the first time in two seasons Lannan won’t be the opening day starter, which, obviously, he was not ready for at such a young age. With less pressure on him, Lannan should be able to settle into that third rotation spot nicely.

Speaking of up-and-down seasons, Jason Marquis finished the year on a high note after a catastrophic beginning to his Nationals career. If he can return to the pitcher the Nats thought they were signing last offseason, the Nationals have themselves a nice number two guy in the rotation.

The biggest surprise for the Nationals in 2010 was the rejuvenation of Livan Hernandez. In 2011, Washington won’t lean on perennial innings-eater (innings must be high in calories) nearly as much as they did last year. If everything else goes right, Livo will be the fourth starter, where an ERA in the mid-4s and 200 innings will suffice.

The fifth spot in the rotation remains a question mark for the Nationals.

Contenders for the spot include Cuban-defector Yunesky Maya, Garrett Mock, and Tom Gorzelanny. And don’t sleep on Chad Gaudin as a potential dark horse in the race.

The best case scenario would be one of the younger arms taking a huge step forward and winning the spot. A certain sixth overall pick in 2007 comes to mind.

The competition may be moot by May, when Chien-Ming Wang is likely to make his Nationals debut. While it may not be the Phillies’ rotation, a Zimmermann-Marquis-Lannan-Hernandez-Wang quintet is pretty darn good.

The Nationals are absolutely loaded at catcher.

Ivan Rodriguez is a Hall-of-Famer and a proven winner; Wilson Ramos is young and very talented; Jesus Flores is finally healthy and coming off a good stint in winter ball. And then there is Derrick Norris, who may be the best of the lot, but will undoubtedly begin the season in the minors.

Whoever emerges as the Nationals’ everyday catcher, they will add to a solid defense.

The Nationals have traded their two worst defensive players from last year—Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham—for two good defenders in the form of Jayson Werth and Adam Laroche. And there is still Ryan Zimmerman’s gold glove over at third.

The real question is whether Nyjer Morgan can get back to the way he was playing defensively in 2009.

In 2009 the charismatic Canadian had his worst season with nine errors in center field. One of his biggest problems was giving opposing teams extra bases by not hitting the cutoff man consistently.

That has to change in 2011.

It will be interesting to see this spring whether Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa can evolve into one of the better double play combinations in the NL. Ian Desmond has unlimited range; if he can get the fundamentals down, he could blossom into a defensive star.

Both Desmond and Espinosa reported early, as did Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth. This team has a lot to prove and it looks like their chomping at the bit to get started.

Nyjer Morgan is ready to put 2010 behind him, and he is actually healthy coming into Spring Training unlike last year, where he had yet to fully recover from wrist surgery.

Morgan may be the key to this team. And a good season from Morgan starts with a good spring. A .259 batting average is not going cut it, and neither is a barely over-.300 OBP. If he can improve on those numbers and improve his steal percentage, the Nats could have a dangerous lineup.

Between Bryce Harper’s spring debut, Jayson Werth’s Nats debut, the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation and at catcher, and Nyjer Morgan’s comeback season, there will be a lot to watch for this spring.