Spring is in the air for Nats

Spring is in the air for Nats
February 14, 2011, 3:52 pm
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Monday, February 14, 2011, 10:51 a.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
CSNwashington.com

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For baseball fans, there are no sweeter set of words in the English language than these four: Pitchers and catchers report. For a Washington Nationals organization attempting to take a significant step forward in 2011, there is no sweeter sight than that of dozens of players arriving in the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium and preparing to take those first key steps of the marathon season.

Players have already been trickling in to Viera, Fla., over the last week in advance of Tuesday's official report date. Formal workouts don't begin until Thursday, and the full squad won't be in uniform and on the field at the same time until Feb. 22, but make no mistake: Baseball season has begun.

The Nationals club that convenes in Viera boasts some significant additions (and subtractions) from the club that departed Citi Field in New York on Oct. 3, having beaten the Mets in 14 innings to finish 2010 with a 69-93 record.

Adam Dunn, who anchored the heart of the Washington lineup for two seasons, is gone after signing a four-year contract with the Chicago White Sox. So is Josh Willingham, the reliable-though-oft-injured No. 5 hitter who was traded to the Oakland Athletics in December.

The Nationals, though, believe they've amply replaced both sluggers in the form of Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche, who may not post quite as impressive offensive numbers but will perform considerably better in the field than their defensively challenged predecessors.

Improved defense was a major point of emphasis over the winter by general manager Mike Rizzo, who sought to build a roster with more athletic players who field their positions well and can help reduce the number of runs this team gave up one year ago while committing an MLB-high 127 errors. In addition to Werth in right field at LaRoche at first base, rookie Danny Espinosa takes over at second base and a consortium of players led by Roger Bernadina takes over in left field.

Those additions -- combined with Gold Glove-winning third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a maturing Ian Desmond at shortstop and a re-focused Nyjer Morgan in center field -- leaves the Nationals feeling like they've got a potentially stellar defensive club in 2011.

They'll need to be rock-solid in the field to compensate for a pitching staff that will be lacking an ace most of the season while Stephen Strasburg recovers from Tommy John surgery. The flame-throwing right-hander recently began playing catch for the first time since undergoing the procedure last September to replace the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. At best, he'll be back pitching in the majors this September, though it's possible he won't return until 2012.

Despite a legitimate effort to acquire another front-line starter of the winter, Rizzo was unable to lure Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke or Jorge de la Rosa to Washington. So the Nationals will enter 2011 without a bona fide No. 1 starter, though they will have a deeper rotation than perhaps at any point in their brief history in the District.

Veterans Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis are back, Hernandez hoping to pick up where he left off last season and a healthy Marquis hoping to prove last year's disaster was a product of bone chips in his elbow and not a decline in his career. Left-handers John Lannan, who rediscovered his old form last summer after a brief demotion to the minors, and Tom Gorzelanny, acquired last month from the Chicago Cubs, have enjoyed success at the big-league level.

The key, though, might be Jordan Zimmermann, the 24-year-old right-hander who missed most of last season while recovering from his own Tommy John surgery. Fully healthy again, Zimmermann is now poised to realize his vast potential and perhaps become the much-needed anchor of the Nationals' rotation in Strasburg's absence.

As is the case in the rotation, the Nationals lack a proven stopper in their bullpen but boast considerable depth. Drew Storen, still only 23, figures to ascend to the closer role at some point, but team officials don't want to thrust that responsibility on him just yet. So Storen will share the load with holdovers Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard, plus newcomers Todd Coffey and Henry Rodriguez, hoping the relief corps as a whole can be as effective as last year's unit that ranked among the best in baseball.

There's plenty of time for all that to sort out before camp breaks in six weeks and the final 25-man roster heads north in advance of the March 31 opener against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. As is always the case, there will be surprises along the way, both positive and negative.

But after a long winter of roster-tweaking and near-roster-tweaking, the focus now shifts to the diamond. Baseball season has arrived, and for players and fans alike, there's no thought more soothing than that.

Mark Zuckerman covers the Nationals full-time for CSNwashington.com. He also blogs about the team at natsinsider.com. You can reach him at mzuckerman@comcastsportsnet.com.