Even though the East Coast has been hammered by the snow, pitchers and catchers have started reporting for spring training.
Yes, baseball fans, opening day is almost here.
For the first time in a long time, Beltway baseball is quite relevant entering spring training as the Nationals are likely the favorite to win the NL East.
The Nationals’ biggest battle in spring training will be at catcher. Entering 2012, youngster Wilson Ramos was projected to be the Nats’ starting catcher, but his season ended early when he tore his ACL in May.
After the platooning several catchers between May and August, the Nats acquired Kurt Suzuki from the Oakland Athletics. Suzuki ended 2012 on a high note, hitting .301 over his final 26 games in D.C.
At the moment, Suzuki is set to be the starter, according to the Nationals’ depth chart.
But don’t count out Ramos. He is younger and has substantially more upside. If Ramos can show he is fully healed from his injury, don’t be surprised if he is the Nationals’ opening day catcher.
Last year, the Nationals signed Edwin Jackson on a one-year “flyer” with hopes Jackson could help solidify the backend of the Nationals rotation.
The Nats are taking the same approach this year with Dan Haren, who signed a one-year, $13 million contract over the winter.
Haren is coming off of one of the worst seasons in his career, where he posted his lowest innings pitched and strikeouts in his last seven seasons. Haren will benefit from no longer having to pitch in the hitter-friendly American League.
The two keys to look out for in the spring are Haren’s health and his velocity. 2012 saw Haren go on the DL for the first time with a back injury, and some teams were concerned about his hip. Haren also had a drop in his fastball velocity for his third straight year. If both health and velocity are in question during spring training, it could project a season-long struggle for Haren.
Frequently, spring training is a time to discover youngsters who may have an impact down the road. Thankfully (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), the Nats’ opening day roster is almost fully set entering spring training.
However, this does not mean that there aren’t players to look out for. The headliner for the Nationals is 2011 first-round pick Anthony Rendon. He is a great hitter who shows good plate vision. He also has good range and potentially good power. But Rendon was drafted as a third baseman (currently occupied by all-star Ryan Zimmerman) and has a very bad injury history. Scouts project Rendon to play second base, and he could make the Nationals squad out of spring training if he shows enough ability.
The most important part of spring training for the Nats is staying healthy. If the Nats want to have any chance of repeating as division champs, their key players need to stay healthy.