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The Nationals' top 10 questions for spring training

Just arrived in Orlando, Fla., ready to handle about a week of spring training coverage until my yet-unnamed replacement (sorry, just following company orders; I am winking as I type this) arrives. Anyway, before I drive to Melbourne in the ol' Avis rental car, I thought I'd dish out a quick post, a list inspired by those in-flight magazine top-10s ranking steakhouses and surgeons.

Friday morning, Nats pitchers and catchers report. And so it begins. Everything is fresh, and everything is possible, and no conceivable miracle seems too distant to find along the horizon. Just speaking personally, I love sentences that begin with "Maybe," and February is baseball's season for maybes. Maybe Chien-Ming Wang wins 14 games this year, and maybe John Lannan makes the all-star game, and maybe Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn form the best 3-4 punch in the NL. Maybe the Nats play .500 ball through the first two months and Nats Park draws 42,000 for Strasburg's June debut. Hell, maybe Strasburg starts Game 1 of the NLCS. And Game 1 of the World Series. And maybe Bryce Harper is his battery mate.

OK, so February is also a good month for getting carried away.

But curiosity is fun.

So here are my biggest questions as the Nats enter Spring Training 2010. Feel free to add your own thoughts; I'm curious to hear them.


1. What becometh of Stephen Strasburg? His every move will be scrutinized, analyzed, recorded, posterized, YouTube'd, tweeted and possibly even twitpic'd. The Nats believe they have an ace, but how do they handle him? Does he start the year as the world's most famous P-Nat -- heck, he's more famous than the letter 'P' itself -- or can he conceivably pitch lights-out in the Grapefruit League and go north with the big leaguers?

2. Is Jesus Flores the catcher of the future or the catcher whose future never came? Much of it rides on his health; he missed almost all of last season because of a progression of serious shoulder injuries. He might not even be ready for start the season. Just a year ago, Flores looked like Washington's everyday catcher for the next five years, but now, with the signing of Pudge Rodriguez and the emergence of minor league prospect Derek Norris, the window for Flores looks narrow at best. But lest it be forgotten: Flores, at his best, looks like a future all-star.

3. Does Jim Riggleman have the same touch, now that he's full-time? Last year, Interim Jim had a keen sense for what his players needed. He took over after the all-star break and, voila, defense improved, attention to detail improved, etc. The record improved, too. So, how does Riggleman's voice resonate now that players have gotten used to it? And how does he grow into the job?

4. Can Matt Capps finally solve the Nats' closer woes? If he pitches like he did in '09 (5.80 ERA), the answer is no. If he pitches like he did in 2007 (2.28 ERA) and 2008 (3.02 ERA), the answer is yes. Washington is paying him like it's expecting a yes.

5. Who can rebound from old injuries? And who looks like damaged goods? I'm paying special attention to Wang, Scott Olsen and Cristian Guzman. All dealt with various injury problems last year. A healthy Olsen and/or Wang gives the Nats a 180-inning vet -- an early Christmas present. If even one of them can contribute to the rotation this year, the Nats are lucky. A healthy Guzman gives the Nats a shortstop capable of keeping the everyday job for another season. This is important, given that... well, Guzman has the job.

6. Who fills the back end of the rotation? As Sheinin noted in a previous post, the Nats have roughly enough starting pitching candidates to create their own traffic jam. So who emerges from the pack? Garrett Mock? J.D. Martin? Matt Chico? Miguel Batista? No doubt the Detwiler injury is a blow -- he has better stuff than anybody else in the mix, plus he's a lefty -- but the Nats still hope to find decency via quantity.

7. How does Nyjer Morgan look over a full season? Those who saw him in Washington last season witnessed a true burst of excellence; Morgan was like Ty Cobb and Lou Brock, only he also knew how to play hockey. But some in the sabermetrics world aren't convinced, and believe Morgan will backslide, finishing 2010 with roughly a .280 average and a .350 on-base percentage. My take: If Morgan can hit .300 and play first-rate defense, he'll remain one of the Nats' most valuable players.

8. Can Dunn play adequate first base? With Nick Johnson gone, that's his full-time position. Frankly, he looked better at first base in 2009 than he did in left field... or right field. Dunn's two-month trial at first last season has apparently assuaged most concerns about his fielding competence at first, but Washington doesn't have much margin for error with its infield this year, especially with all those ground-ball pitchers. Until the National League adopts a DH, Dunn's glovework will always be worth looking at.

9. Is Elijah Dukes ready to break out? Or is he a player that tantalizes as much as he frustrates? The fashion in which he starts 2010 will go a long way to giving Washington its answer.

10. How do the smaller roster battles play out? The Nats already have much of their starting lineup solidified, but what about those bench spots? Does Eric Bruntlett, Ian Desmond or Alberto Gonzalez earn one (or two) of the middle infield jobs? What about the outfield, where Justin Maxwell, Roger Bernadina and Willy Taveras are all battling for back-up spots?

By Chico Harlan  |  February 18, 2010; 5:25 PM ET
 | Tags: chien-ming wang, jim riggleman adam dunn, matt capps, scott olsen, spring training, washington nationals  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Detwiler has hip surgery, out for 10-12 weeks
Next: Beat writer update; good morning from Viera


Good questions, that will all hopefully be answered as things play out over the next six weeks (or longer, in Riggleman's case).
One comment I will make - If Morgan 'backslides' to a .280BA/.350OBP & steals 40+ bases, he'll still be the best CF the Nationals have had since arriving in 2005.

Posted by: BinM | February 18, 2010 6:16 PM | Report abuse

I think "maybe" is the right word? The fortunes of this team still seems like it is under the cloud of some evil whammy. Luck is needed.

Posted by: lerici | February 18, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget Chris Duncan as a potential backup in the outfield. Also, I assume you didn't mention Willie Harris as a potential backup because he is a certain backup.

I don't want to get too silly, but we also have Kevin Mench in camp, and he wasn't injured, just in Japan.


Posted by: kevincostello | February 18, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

@+1/2St.: Fair point regarding Duncan, but I don't understand CHarlan's 'daps' to Batista & Taveras. If those two make the team, it's Tavarez & Patterson all over again.

And yes, you got too silly with Mench.

Posted by: BinM | February 18, 2010 6:52 PM | Report abuse

Hey Gang-bad news for for the dead horse, i.e. the Post.
Seems like Boz is missing in action. Is he still with 'em? Whatever your opinion on him, he is the "dean" and as such, can hold feet to flames-something he was (imho) gently, politely starting to do. And he claims to be a baseball guy so it strikes me as strange not to have heard from him in 2?3? weeks. Did he even do a post Superbowl piece?
TIME, Gentlemen and Women!
Go Nats!!!!!

Posted by: zendo | February 18, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

ha ha, Scooter. You tried to slip that one by us, but I noticed. :-D

zendo, according to a chat some weeks ago, Boz is slated to report to Viera next week, perhaps overlapping with the beat writer to be named later (wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more).


Oh. I guess everyone already new about the knew post.

Posted by: Scooter_ | February 18, 2010 5:23 PM

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 18, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

I don't recall seeing this, either:

The Nats outrighted Doug Slaten to Triple A, according to the team's Twitter. They designated him for assignment two days ago.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | February 18, 2010 7:27 PM | Report abuse

I saw that somewhere. Probably either on the Insider or the MASN site.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 18, 2010 7:43 PM | Report abuse

I don't recall seeing this, either:

The Nats outrighted Doug Slaten to Triple A, according to the team's Twitter. They designated him for assignment two days ago.

Posted by: Sec3mysofa | February 18, 2010 7:27 PM | Report abuse

I saw that somewhere. Probably either on the Insider or the MASN site.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 18, 2010 7:43 PM | Report abuse

I posted it on here somewhere, but I think it got lost among all the other posts that day.

In other news, Mike MacDougal is now a Florida Marlin.

Posted by: thepostischeap | February 18, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

I saw the Slaten news on mlbtraderumours this morning as well, reportedly via team twitter.

That raises the question, who gets sacked from the 40-man when they make the Wang signing official - English(L), Atilano(R), Mattheus(R), Severino(L), or someone I've overlooked?

Posted by: BinM | February 18, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse

Why did Detweiler wait until now to get his hip fixed?

Posted by: billdemps | February 18, 2010 7:58 PM | Report abuse

From MLBTR: "The Nationals designated Doug Slaten for assignment to make room for new acquisition Adam Kennedy, according to Chico Harlan of the Washington Post (via Twitter). The Nationals picked the 30-year-old Slaten up off waivers from the D'Backs in November."

Posted by: thepostischeap | February 16, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

So Chico tweeted the news two days ago, but never mentioned it here...

Posted by: thepostischeap | February 18, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Wouldn't it be Mattheus? He, like Wang is a sinker ball pitcher and he is right handed?

Posted by: periculum | February 18, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

No need to cut someone from the 40-man roster to make room for Wang now. Just put Detwiler on the 60-day DL.

Posted by: nunof1 | February 18, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Why does Wang need to take up a 40 man space? He goes on the DL immediately, right?

Posted by: swang30 | February 18, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

Re: Boz not being around for the start of ST. The Post can only afford so many top end columnists and have chosen to have Andy Beyer write about Horse Racing the past few weeks. We all know how many people follow that sport regularly. Just ask the folks who own Laurel or Pimlico (which Baltimore used as the dumping spot for all of their excess snow, so the Preakness might be run in the snow, for the first time.)

Posted by: mikecatcher50 | February 18, 2010 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Guess it'll be a bit of wait to see what Mike Rizzo does next ... might as well sit back, calm down and take your meds all.

Posted by: periculum | February 18, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

Good questions.

Posted by: fischy | February 19, 2010 1:26 AM | Report abuse

Nobody seemed to be interested that Chico pretty much confirmed that the Boston Globe guy is his replacement.

I would imagine that the next week of Chico's contributions will be really top-notch (seriously)-- he'll want to go out on a high note and show the more experienced new guy that he could get the job done.

That's all good, as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by: nats24 | February 19, 2010 1:35 AM | Report abuse

Maybe they'll all just sit back and let Mark Z steal the limelight ... after all they do all have jobs. And he really doesn't. Think about it dudes and dudettes.

Posted by: periculum | February 19, 2010 2:13 AM | Report abuse

I guess this is really an extension of question number nine, but will the corner outfield spots provide enough offense to supplement the production we're expecting to see from the first four spots (Morgan, Guzman, Zim, Dunn) in the order? Also, can Bruney, Burnett and Clippard give the Nats consistently solid options as a bridge to Capps as the closer? Can't wait for the season to start so we can start getting some answers.

Posted by: VaNat | February 19, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

To me the biggest questions are Olsen's health - which if he's healthy will make a huge difference - and if we extend Dunn, hich would send an excellent message to the team.

Posted by: SCNatsFan | February 19, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Does anybody know if Doug Slaten will be invited to Spring Training now that he has been outrighted to Syracuse?

Some combination (2)of Burnett, Guardado, Villone, and Slaten should probably make the roster. Although interestingly enough, none of them had particularly good platoon splits against Left handed batters last year. Guardado was actually better against righties. Statistically, Clippard, Bruney, and Walker are your best bets against left handed batters - but then again they are your best bets against right-handed batters too.

Posted by: natbiscuits | February 19, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

Chico's Lannan piece was terrific and had some good insights inot Lannan's success.

If Nyjer has .350 OBP and plays defense like the NL version of "Death to Flying Things," then we would have a very good ballplayer and not just the best Nat CF since 2005. In 2009, 52 players had over ABs last year as CFs. .350 OBP would have been 20th (Morgan's .391 was 3d). A .350 OBP would also have been middle of the pack among leadoff hitters with over 100 ABs. Average on base skills for a leadoff hitter and slightly above average for a CF, 70+% SB success rate, and elite defense that makes him the NL version of "Death to Flying Things" would be a very good player, perhaps one of the best in the NL.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | February 19, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Chico: here are some geusses at the answers . . .

1. This one is not a guess, it is a dead-bolt lock. Stras has ZERO shot at going north with the club. If he stays off the roster until June the Nats get another year befgore he gets to FA. We can all wait.

2. Flores is not a future All Star, his overall stats rate him as a MLB caliber guy not a stud, and the injuries and advancing age do not help him much either.

3. Riggleman should be fine. He has experience, he knows the players.

4. Capps is coin flip to be dominant.

5. No idea who may or may not be healthy. HOPE Guz is b/c that would make a huge diifference.

6. Back end of the rotation? I am concerned with the front end, the Nats have a half dozen 4-5 starters in camp, someone will step up. The question is, can Marquis be an Ace?

7. If ANY player can hit .300 and play great defense he'd be a most valuable player type for the club. Lots of pressure on Morgan, I think he'll be OK but I am guessing he hits .285ish/.360/.435, scores 95 and steals 50 bags.

8. Dunn can and will play tolerable 1B, which will make his asking price go through the roof. Will the Nats step up and pay the guy (as he'll be the best pure slugger on the market next year)? They should throw money at him now and get it done -- but they won't.

9. Dukes will be up and down, but my guess is more ups than downs and he ends up being a very solid player. Say, .280/.350/.490, 85 RBI, 75 R, 15 Sb's.

10. My guess is that Bernadina does not go north with the club. Big power Duncan (who can play some first) and big speed Taveras do. No Morse, no Maxwell, no Gonzalaz, yes Bruntlett (Riggleman will love that Phillie pedigree), yes Desmond (super ulitity guy), yes Harris (makes guaranteed money).

We'll see. thanks

Posted by: dfh21 | February 19, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Good morning. There's a new post, with beat writer "news." (wink wink)

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 19, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Chico - With all due respect, this is a ridiculous sentence:

"If Morgan can hit .300 and play first-rate defense, he'll remain one of the Nats' most valuable players."

Yes, he sure will. He'll be Ryan Zimmerman. In fact, if ANY player can hit .300 (more importantly, OPS over 700) and play first-rate defense, they're a valuable player.

Posted by: neato_torpedo | February 19, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Livan is still hanging out there - any chance we'll sign him? Someone is going to. He'll eat up 200+ innings and get you to the 7th in most games - good clubhouse guy - I'd think they have to be considering it.

Posted by: AsstGM | February 19, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

And - what about Mike Morse? Based on his showing the end of last season, I'd think you have to keep him on the roster.

Posted by: AsstGM | February 19, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

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