All eyes will be on these Nats

All eyes will be on these Nats
January 27, 2011, 3:44 pm
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Thursday, January 27, 2011, 10:43 a.m.
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By Mark Zuckerman
CSNwashington.com

As the Washington area digs itself out of a snowstorm that has left everyone in a sour mood, perhaps some solace can be taken from one heart-warming thought: Pitchers and catchers report in less than three weeks.

Indeed, baseball season is nearly upon us, and members of the Nationals are already starting to trickle in to Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., the slow build-up to the first official day of spring training on February 15.

There will be no shortage of players drawing attention throughout camp, some of them stars like Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Stephen Strasburg (who will soon begin throwing for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow last September). But there will be another group of players who should draw significant attention this spring, not only for who they are but for what their performances this season could mean for a Nationals club trying to escape the NL East basement for the first time in four years.

Let's take a look at four members of the roster who will be particularly scrutinized throughout spring training...

JORDAN ZIMMERMANN
He won't be the Nationals' Opening Day starter this year (that honor probably goes to Livan Hernandez) and he probably won't be their Opening Day starter in the future (a title reserved for Strasburg once he's healthy). But there may not be a more important member of the Nationals' rotation than Zimmermann, who enters a crucial year in his development.

The 24-year-old right-hander has fully healed from his own Tommy John surgery and can resume the career path he was headed on in 2009 before his elbow gave out. Prior to that injury, Zimmermann looked like a legitimate big-leaguer power pitcher, one who struck out more than one batter per inning as a rookie. He showed flashes of that form during his September 2010 return, but those seven starts were more about getting his feel for pitching back and building up arm strength after a 12-month layoff.

The Nationals' success, this year and beyond, depends a lot on Zimmermann. If he continues to progress into a bona fide No. 2 starter, this team is well-positioned in the pitching department. If he doesn't take that next step forward or experiences any physical setback, the Nationals will find themselves in a familiar position: lacking quality arms at the top of their rotation.

NYJER MORGAN
No member of the Nationals came under more scrutiny last season than Morgan, who regressed at the plate, in the field and on the bases. Everything came to a head in late-August, when a string of on-field incidents culminated in a bench-clearing brawl in Florida that severely damaged Morgan's reputation around the sport.

The Nationals stuck with their center fielder throughout the winter, and they have every intention of sticking with him this spring. But the pressure's on Morgan to turn his entire game around.

The 30-year-old must get on base at a clip closer to his career average (.344) than his 2010 average (.319). He must keep himself from running into outs (he was caught stealing 17 times, was picked off 11 times and made seven more outs on the bases). And he must re-establish himself as one of the game's best defensive outfielders.

With no obvious alternatives to replace Morgan either in center field or in the leadoff spot, the Nationals are counting on his return to form.

DANNY ESPINOSA
The Nationals really liked what they saw out of Espinosa during his September tryout. The rookie infielder was spectacular at second base despite a lack of significant experience at that position. And he flashed some impressive power, socking six home runs in his first 73 big-league at-bats.

But Espinosa cooled off considerably at the plate once pitchers began to figure him out. He hit a scant .149 over his final 23 games, striking out 28 times in the process.

Team officials are confident the 23-year-old has all the tools to excel in the majors. He certainly has the defensive gifts to do it. But he's going to have to show he can hit with some level of consistency this spring before the Nationals guarantee him the starting job at second base. Veterans Jerry Hairston and Alex Cora were signed earlier this month as fallback options in case Espinosa struggles.

The Nationals would prefer to use those guys as utilitymen off the bench. But for that to happen, Espinosa has to first seize his opportunity.

BRYCE HARPER
Let's make this clear from the get-go: Harper is not going to make the Nationals' Opening Day roster. The 18-year-old top draft pick is simply getting a chance to work out and play a bit alongside his elders before getting demoted to Class A sometime in March.

But Harper will surely draw plenty of attention in his first spring as a professional ballplayer, and he has an opportunity to turn some heads within the front office and begin to set the timetable for his eventual arrival on the big stage.

Conventional wisdom says the young outfielder needs two full seasons in the minors before getting the call. But this is no ordinary 18-year-old. Harper proved he could play alongside the best prospects in the game in the Arizona Fall League, and if he continues to exceed his experience level in big-league camp this spring, the Nationals won't hesitate to speed up his developmental timeline.

Mark Zuckerman covers the Nationals full-time for CSNwashington.com. He also blogs about the team at natsinsider.com.