This may be the spring training with the least drama, if not the fewest players, of the eight spring trainings for the Washington Nationals. As of this writing, there are just 15 non-roster invitees — a far cry from the days when there were 70+ guys in camp.
For the most part, the drama appears to be more of the “normal” variety: who’s gonna man the bench, who’s gonna be the 5th starter, who’s gonna be the last man out of the bullpen, etc. Some of the beat guys are already making predictions on who the final 25 will be and it seems rather reasonable to me.
I’m not downplaying the Bryce Harper madness, which I know will play a big part of the 2012 story line, but I’m not going to feed that monster, either. I think the Nats brass will serve up all the usual bromides about “the best 25,” with perhaps even Davey Johnson playing the good cop and Mike Rizzo playing the bad cop. We’ll probably see some (breathless) stories comparing him to Ken Griffey Jr. and/or Alex Rodriguez in the past and Mike Trout in the present. Or perhaps we’ll get a cautionary tale about Jason Heyward, especially if the 2010 N.L. Rookie of the Year starts very fast or very slowly in Buena Vista.
What will change things in a hurry is if there’s a trade of an existing starter or two. It’s no secret that the Nats are hurting for a CF and that they have a perceived surplus of starting pitchers (pay no attention to those two guys that have had Tommy John surgery the past year or two). Perennial punching bag Ian Desmond is another trade option (as long as you’re convinced that Danny Espinosa will revert to first-half form). But I don’t anticipate such a trade happening any earlier than the last week of March (if at all).
Aside from Harper, I think most of the prospect drama this year will be whether or not Steve Lombardozzi makes the club as a bench player. The only potential wrinkle I can foresee is Johnson deciding on a platoon, which I can’t recall happening recently with two switch-hitters. I put it out there only because Espinosa’s splits finished so severely last season (.222/.312/.390 vs. RHPs; .283/.361/.496 vs. LHPs) while Lombardozzi was closer to the ideal of being even. The safer bet is to see Lombardozzi return to Syracuse so he can play everyday (and maintain trade value).
Of course, there’s an outside shot that Corey Brown can displace Roger Bernadina as a spare outfielder. Perhaps Mike Cameron will start too slowly again for the Nats to carry him. Or maybe Adam LaRoche won’t be fully healthy or effective after nearly a year off.
It’s also possible someone will shock us from the bullpen, but I think the lack of options for most will be the deciding factor. Dan Cortes and the Ryans (Perry and Mattheus) are your top candidates for the Syracuse-to-DC shuttle (formerly known as the Balester back-and-forth). Otherwise, we’re looking to see if anyone can move up from Harrisburg (Rafael Martin, Erik Arnesen, Pat Lehman).
As always, my hope is to dig up what I can while watching from afar and keep the conversation going until the minors start up on April 5th.