Meet the main reason for all the Nats buzz: Bryce Harper. Photograph by Flickr user MissChatter.
For the first time in a few generations, Washington is starting to feel like an actual baseball town. Wherever I go, it seems as if somebody is talking about spring training, which is a nice departure from the horror of NFL Combine chatter.
From restaurant tables to talk radio, people are getting excited about our Nationals. It’s the kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm that’s usually reserved for the Redskins, or the Chipotle Burrito Dash at Verizon Center.
The Nationals have built a team that’s quickly becoming the envy of other local franchises. They enter spring training with the most promise they’ve had since arriving in Washington, and their timing couldn’t be better. Everyone else in town is struggling, while the Nats are just coming into their own behind a strong young core. They now have the veterans in place to make things seriously interesting on the waterfront this summer.
When it comes to established guys like Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth,and Jordan Zimmermann, you basically know what you’re going to get. However there are a number of guys worth watching closely throughout spring training, from the promising crop of rookies to some veterans coming off of injury.
Bryce Harper: The main reason the Nationals will be the most buzz-worthy team in the Grapefruit League. Everyone who enjoys baseball is going to be eager to see Harper hitting home runs to the opposite field (because anyone can pull the ball, duh). More important is seeing how well he handles himself in the outfield.
2012 Outlook: Harper’s goal is to break camp with the big club. Davey Johnson would probably love to put him in the opening-day lineup, but it wouldn’t make any sense. By sending Harper to Triple A to start the season, the Nats are able to push back his free agency for an additional year. So would you rather have a month of a 19-year-old Harper now, or a full season of Harper at 25? Enjoy him while you can, Syracuse.
Anthony Rendon: The only reason Ryan Zimmerman has addressed the possibility of a position switch is because of Rendon, one of the gems of the 2011 draft class. The Rice product hits for power and has the glove to lock down the hot corner when his time comes. In the meantime, the club plans to give him looks at both middle infield spots, because Ian Desmond isn’t getting any better.
2012 Outlook: Rendon will spend his first professional season in the minors; the only question is whether he’ll play at third or if they’ll move him around.
Steve Lombardozzi: The two guys above will get most of the attention from fans, but it’s Lombardozzi who has the best chance of making the team. He’s an excellent fielder, much like his father of the same name, and while his numbers aren’t flashy, he gets on base.
2012 Outlook: With a solid spring, Lombardozzi should lock up the utility infielder role. In time he could push shortstop Ian Desmond out of town.
Matt Purke: It’s time to get familiar with this left-handed pitcher, if for no other reason than to throw it in Tom Boswell’s face should the opportunity arise. Plus it’s always interesting to see how a dominating college pitcher handles himself against Major League talent.
2012 Outlook: GM Mike Rizzo called him a “quick to the big leagues” kind of pitcher, but he’ll spend 2012 riding the bus in the minors. When he does make it to DC, just remember that hipster baseball columnists liked him before he was mainstream.
Stephen Strasburg: His successful return from Tommy John surgery was arguably the highlight of last season. Don’t expect too many fireworks this spring, just enjoy the fact that he’s there.
2012 Outlook: Strasburg will be on a strict innings limit, much like Jordan Zimmermann was a year ago. If the Nats are in contention around the time he pitches his 160th inning, they will chain him to the bench against his will.
Adam LaRoche: Hopefully he’ll come out of the gate hot, because he was uncharacteristically awful last year before injuring his shoulder.
2012 Outlook: Look for LaRoche to regain some of his old form at the plate. Depending on how the season shakes out, he could see himself on the move at the trade deadline.
Wilson Ramos: No, he wasn’t injured last year. But he did survive a terrifying kidnapping ordeal during the offseason, which is now fair game for jokes. He’s safe and sound in the Grapefruit League, as long as they keep an extra-close eye on him when the team travels to play the Mets in Port St. Lucie. Those guys are as desperate as any Venezuelan kidnappers.
2012 Outlook: Ramos will be the man behind the plate.