Washington Nationals: Top 5 Spring Training Storylines.

5. Danny Espinosa's Hamate Bone: A promising run in the Puerto Rican Winter League playing second for the Leones de Ponce (during which he hit six doubles, three triples and two HR's with a 281/.343/.483 slash line) was cut short when switch-hitting Nats' second baseman Danny Espinosa suffered an injury which required surgery to remove the hook of the hamate bone from the 23-year-old infielder's right hand.Ryan Zimmerman, then 23, had the surgery on his left hand in November '07. Ian Desmond had a stress fracture to his left hamate bone in 2008. The 33rd best prospect in baseball according to ESPN.com's Keith Law, Derek Norris, injured the hamate bone in his left wrist working out in preparation for the Arizona Fall League in '09, and the subsequent surgery cost him the chance to play in the AFL that year. ESPN.com's Mr. Law cited the injury as one reason for Norris' lack of power in 2010, but the catcher told Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore earlier this winter that it was another injury to his hand that compounded the problem and set his recovery back. Asked in a brief press conference recently at Nationals Park if he was concerned at all about Espinosa's injury, or felt the Nats needed to have a backup plan for the infielder, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo said, "Danny will have no issue with the hamate surgery, he'll be 100% ready to go in Spring Training,":

Mike Rizzo: "We expect him to be our Opening Day second baseman. He's a young player, but what he gives to us defensively range-wise, energy level, and speed on the bases, we can absorb a little bit of poor rookie at bats, if you will, until he gets comfortable in the batter's box from both sides of the plate."

4. Bryce Harper vs The Nats: Remember last year when Stephen Strasburg threw his first live BP? Can you name the four players who "tracked" his pitches, not swinging, (by design) as he threw off the mound to batters for the first time last Spring? Remember Strasburg's first start against the Tigers? Remember Strasburg striking former Marlin Miguel Cabrera out with a rising heater? Will Bryce Harper get the same kind of coverage? Who'll be the first Nats' pitcher to throw a fastball that Harper tattoos? How long a look will Harper get against the major leaguers? According to Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman, the Nats' 18-year-old outfielder and 2010 no.1 overall pick, will, "get a fair amount of at bats", against major league pitchers, before moving over to the minor league camp.

During a ceremony to retire his College of Southern Nevada no.34 jersey this weekend, the Nats' right fielder of the future joked, as recounted in an article by Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Todd Dewey entitled, "Harper puts up final untouchable number for CSN" that he expected, "to be with the big league club," when Spring Training ended, before more realistically admitting that he hopes he'll, "...get a big league call-up in September and then be able to be out there next year and try to make the team out of camp. That's what I'm shooting for.'" After what he's done already, at 18, who wants to tell Bryce Harper he can't do whatever he's determined to do? The no.3 prospect on MLB.com's Top 50 Prospect list. The no.2 prospect in baseball according to ESPN.com's Keith Law. The Bryce Harper era starts the second he arrives at Space Coast Stadium.

3. Closer Battle: Drew Storen vs the World - "A lot was made of Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman comments after he pulled Nats' "closer" Drew Storen from a game in late September with two outs in the ninth and Washington still ahead of Houston 8-4 at home in Nats Park. The 23-year-old right-hander had, of course, allowed a one-out HR by Astros' third baseman Chris Johnson and issued a two-out walk to his former Stanford Cardinal catcher Jason Castro, and, of course, Storen had also given up four runs without recording an out in his previous outing, blowing a 6-3 lead in a 7-6 loss to "Walk-Off" Jayson Werth and the Philadelphia Phillies.

Asked if he was concerned about the closer's confidence after pulling him when he struggled again against the Astros, Riggleman, as quoted in Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore's Nationals Journal post entitled, "Drew Storen, Jim Riggleman and confidence", said, "'If a guy's confidence gets shaken that easy, then he might not be the right guy,'" for the closer's role. Just as important, however, were the next words out of the manager's mouth:

"'I have no doubt that Drew is going to look at that as a situation where, 'I'm not the closer here yet. I aspire to be that. But it's results orientated, and I'm going through the process of becoming a closer here someday.'"

The Nationals are saying that Storen will be competing with Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez and Todd Coffey for the closer's role, but the second '09 1st Round pick was drafted as a closer and kept in a relief role in spite of his arsenal, as D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained to Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin in a June '09 article entitled, "Rizzo On Strasburg, Storen... and Crow", because they believe, "He wants the challenge of having the ball in the ninth inning. He's a much quicker prospect to the majors as a closer prospect.'" If Storen's not immediately ready, (he is only 23) another former-future-closer like Coffey, Clippard, Collin Balester or Rodriguez (who was closing games at Triple-A in the Athletics' system last season) could challenge the right-hander for the role, but in spite of the "Storen-as-a-starter" chatter which even showed up in one of Washington Post writer Thomas Boswell's recent chats, the plan seems to be for Storen to assume the role previously filled by Matt Capps, Mike MacDougal, Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero as the Nats' ninth-inning option.

2. 5th Spot In Rotation - The point of adding a top-of-the-rotation arm this winter, as D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained in a late-September scrum with the D.C. press corps, was to replace Stephen Strasburg there....ok, that's not what Mr. Rizzo said, though Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann were clearly meant to be no.'s 1-2 atop the rotation in 2011. But what the Nats' General Manager did say was that a front-line starter would, "...put everybody in what we feel is their proper place in the rotation," as Nats Insider.com's Mark Zuckerman's reported in a 9/29/10 article entitled, "Rizzo's No. 1 priority: No. 1 starter." We all know how the starter search worked out now, though Rizzo said recently the Nats continue to consider any and all options. Cliff Lee went to Philly. Jorge De La Rosa returned to the Rockies. Zack Greinke rejected the Nats, and the Cubs snatched up Matt Garza after also signing first baseman Carlos Pena, who was reportedly atop the Nationals' list of possible Adam Dunn replacements.


Without a clear no.1, the battle will instead be for the fifth spot in the rotation, though more than one spot might be available. Livan Hernandez, improbably the Nats' best starter in 2010, is likely going to at least begin the season in the rotation, (Jim Riggleman predicted he'd be the Opening Day starter recently). Jordan Zimmermann's expected to be 100% and ready for a full season in the rotation. John Lannan and Jason Marquis will be on most lists predicting the Nationals' 2010 rotation. In a late season press conference, Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman said he was impressed with the way left-handed Lannan and the right-handed Marquis pitched late in 2010, but, "...if what we see from those guys is what we saw in April and May that's not going to work." After those four, if they claim the spots they're expected to, it's Tom Gorzelanny (acquired from the Cubs after they got Garza), Yunesky Maya (the DWL legend and the Nats' first major international signing), Garrett ("The Stuff") Mock, Craig ("Old Rubber Arm's Replacement") Stammen, Chien-Ming ("Be ready by May") Wang, '07 1st Round pick Ross Detwiler, and likely all of the above (and hopefully Strasburg) before the season's over. Opening Day Rotation Prediction Before Spring Training Even Starts (in no particular order) :

 

2011 Rotation: 1. Livan 2. Zim(n) 3. Marquis 4. Lannan 5. Gorzelanny...with Detwiler and Maya pushing for roles.

1. Backstop Battle: In a quick Q&A session following the unveiling of the Nats' new jerseys and caps this past November, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo was asked about the future of 26-year-old Venezuelan-born backstop Jesus Flores, the once-highly regarded Rule 5 steal from the NY Mets' organization who's missed most of the last two season with a series of shoulder issues. "Our plan for Flores," Rizzo said at the time, is for the recovering catcher to "get some at bats under his belt" in the Venezuelan Winter League and then "...try to win a job as a catcher on the Nationals in 2011." Flores finished his stint as Navegantes de Magallanes catcher with a .322/.365/.460 slash line, six doubles, two HR's and 16 RBI's in 25 games. Wilson Ramos, 23, acquired from the Twins at the 2010 Non-Waiver deadline, put together a .322/.390/.567 VWL campaign, collecting 17 doubles, nine HR's and 36 RBI's in 47 games and 180 at bats as the Tigres de Aragua catcher.

It's going to be one or the other of Flores and Ramos apparently (w/ most expecting Flores to start at Triple-A). "We do have some depth at that position," the Nats' GM said in November, "...it's going to be great competition between Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores and couple that with a veteran Pudge Rodriguez." ESPN.com's Keith Law had Derek Norris (33rd) ranked higher on his list of the Top 100 Prospects in Baseball than Ramos, last week, but he said the former Twins' prospect (95th) has, "two above-average tools (hit and arm) and average or slightly better power", and is, "...on track to at least share the catching duties," with Pudge Rodriguez, but needs to stay healthy and work on his game-calling and patience at the plate, none of which Pudge will be able to help him with according to Mr. Law, who describes Pudge as "washed-up" with a tendency to call, "for fastball after fastball," behind the plate while showing little patience (.294 OBP in '07, .319 in '08, .280 in '09, .294 in '10) with a bat in his hand.

Any chance Flores and Ramos force Pudge and his $3M dollar contract out of town? With Flores two years removed from major league action, he'll likely have to prove he's capable of staying healthy, so not right away...but MLB.com's Bill Ladson did, however, write in response to a question in a recent Q&A entitled, "Inbox: How's Opening Day lineup shaping up?", that he, "would not be surprised if Rodriguez was traded before Opening Day in order to make room for [Wilson] Ramos and Jesus Flores." Not likely...but you never know...?

How many days til pitchers and catchers report?

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