5 things to watch when Nationals start spring training

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On Feb. 11, prospective crooners lined up at the Palm Beach Outlets for national anthem auditions. Baseball, specifically, Washington Nationals baseball, is close to starting in its new spring training home at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Florida. Singers and everyone else needed to become ready.

Nationals pitchers and catchers report Tuesday. By the end of the week, the whole squad is expected in its new digs, leaving behind Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida.

Washington is only mildly altered a season after again failing in the first round of the playoffs. A 2-1 National League Division Series lead against the Los Angeles Dodgers went away in Game 5 at home, sending the National League East champions into their vacation.

In are center fielder Adam Eaton and catcher Derek Norris. Out are catcher Wilson Ramos, shortstop Danny Espinosa and closer Mark Melancon. Those changes have brought spots to watch not just in Florida, but throughout the season.

Here are five things to keep an eye on when the Nationals begin to officially reassemble on Tuesday:

1. Can’t close in on a closer. Only teams without a closer say they like their internal options to handle the role. Though baseball has move toward agreement that the best pitcher should be on the mound in the most crucial situation — which was clear last postseason — it also agrees that’s not a sustainable approach for a 162-game season. The Nationals tried to re-sign Melancon, directed a solid offer toward Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen and explored other options. None worked. What remains is the biggest question of their spring: Who will pitch the ninth?

2. Here’s the catch. Wilson Ramos’ injury didn’t just change his baseball life. It dramatically altered the catcher’s spot for the Nationals. They enter 2017 with Norris slated to start a season after he had one of the worst offensive years of any catcher in the league. Behind him is the soft-handed and light-hitting Jose Lobaton. Still waiting for a chance is Pedro Severino. The Nationals will go from having an All-Star at catcher who often hit fifth in their lineup, to likely sliding the catcher to eighth in the batting order. Combined, Norris and Lobaton’s best single years at the plate don’t match Ramos’ 22 home runs from last season.

3. How will Eaton fit? The marquee move of the offseason came when the Nationals sent three pitching prospects — two of which made their major-league debuts last season — to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton. Instantaneous reviews of the trade lampooned it. Eaton has a career .771 OPS and cost the Nationals Lucas Giolito, once their top prospect and near the top in baseball, and Reynaldo Lopez. Young starting pitching counts as gold in the major leagues. So, the haul for Eaton was questioned, in particular by former Washington general manager and current ESPN talking head, Jim Bowden. The Nationals perspective figures that Eaton will improve their center field defense and give them another speed and on-base option at the top of the lineup. If he leads off, Trea Turner would be expected to hit second. Ostensibly, Eaton’s bat replaces that of Espinosa. He’s an improvement in average, but only a meager improvement in contact. Eaton averaged 123 strikeouts the past two seasons; Espinosa 140.

4. Turner deals long with short. Speaking of Turner, he gets his wish of moving back to shortstop, where he played throughout his life until last season’s woeful center field production by others forced him to the outfield. Washington needed to find a way to get his offense into the lineup. They did so by making him an outfielder who learned on the fly. Like Eaton, he replaces an element of Espinosa. In this case, it’s defense. There were concerns last season about putting the unseasoned Turner at shortstop with an average-at-best defender, Daniel Murphy, next to him. The Nationals will be working that combination this season with Stephen Drew re-signed as the utility infielder. Turner is just 23 years old and has made two starts at shortstop in the major leagues. This season, he’ll be the starting shortstop for a team that expects to contend for the National League East title, and a shot at the World Series after that.

5. Relying on old reliable(s). The new parts will be fitted around the team’s two elders: Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. Werth put together a respectable .752 OPS last season. Zimmerman learned what exit velocity was because he needed to find some light in the darkness of a season where he delivered a .642 OPS, the lowest of his career. Werth will be 38 years old by the end of May. Zimmerman will be 33 in the fall. Both contend they have plenty left. The Nationals don’t appear so sure. Monday, they reportedly signed outfielder/first baseman Adam Lind, a left-hander who hit 19 of his 20 home runs last season against right-handed pitching. He could be used to give the right-handed Zimmerman and Werth a break against left-handed starters (there are teams in Los Angeles and Chicago that have more than capable left-handed pitching). The move may also block Clint Robinson’s path into the clubhouse for the third consecutive season.

 

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