Five questions facing the Nationals as spring training begins

VIERA, Fla. - Are there four more glorious words in the English language than “pitchers and catchers report”?

But before the Nationals’ batteries charge from Space Coast Stadium to the Carl Barger Baseball Complex - OK, it’s actually more of a leisurely stroll, but after nearly five months off, the pace will be quickened - here are the five most important questions facing the club between now and the April 5 season opener at Wrigley Field in Chicago:

Is Bryce Harper ready for prime time? Manager Davey Johnson wants the club’s top prospect as his opening day right fielder, while general manager Mike Rizzo isn’t so sure the 19-year-old is ready. We covered the things Harper has to do to crack the 25-man roster a week ago, but there’s little doubt that he can force Rizzo’s hand by having the kind of monster spring everyone thinks he’s capable of. Forget questions about Harper’s maturity level and concerns that he’s only got 37 games at Double-A under his belt; if he can mash major league pitchers in Grapefruit League play, he’ll make his case. The ball’s in his court.

Can Jayson Werth rebound after a down first year in D.C.? You expect more than a pedestrian .232 average, 20 homers and 58 RBIs from a ballyhooed free agent that signed a seven-year, $126 million deal before last season. Even after last year’s disappointment, Werth’s average output for his nine major league seasons is .264 with 25 homers and 81 RBIs, so there’s room for improvement. Near the end of last season, Werth started to shorten his swing, stop chasing pitches out of the strike zone and looked more comfortable than early in the season. Given a regular spot in the batting order and Johnson’s confidence, he should be fine. The only question is where he will play - it’s either right field with the likelihood of a Rick Ankiel/Mike Cameron platoon in center or in center with Harper flanking him. More than anyone, Werth wasn’t happy with his performance in 2011, and disappointment can be a powerful motivator.

Will the Nationals sign Ryan Zimmerman to a long-term contract extension? Zimmerman, whose current five-year, $45 million deal expires after the 2013 season, wants to remain in D.C. The Nationals have a vested interest in keeping him around - he’s been the face of the franchise, a good citizen and has become one of the league’s top third basemen. So what’s the holdup? Zimmerman would prefer to hammer out a deal before the first day of spring training workouts, ostensibly so he can focus on his performance on the field. Unfortunately, the Nationals would probably like some assurances that Zimmerman, who lost a third of the season last year to a torn abdominal muscle, can return to his pre-injury self. Last year’s malady, coupled with a shoulder injury that cost him significant time in 2008, cast some questions about his durability. The Nationals will soon have to come up with enough money for contracts for their younger, core players; Zimmerman is 27 and entering his prime years. Don’t expect Zimmerman to hold firm on his timetable; if the Nationals want to talk, Zimmerman - or at least his agent - will listen. Both sides want an agreement, and the longer they wait, the better the chance that Zimmerman tests the free agent market. A deal will probably get done, but the Nationals will control the timing.

Can Michael Morse replicate his breakthrough season from 2011? Morse led the Nationals in all three major offensive categories last year, hitting .303 with 31 homers and 95 RBIs. With Adam LaRoche back at first base, Morse will shift to left field. The positional switch won’t affect Morse, but he wants to change a couple of things about his offensive performance. Last week, he told MLB Network Radio that he wants to draw more walks than the 36 free passes he earned in 146 games last year. That’s admirable, but Morse can’t be working walks and depending on teammates to knock him in. Part of his breakthrough was built on an aggressive approach that has to continue. Maybe that’s why the Nationals were only comfortable buying out his two remaining arbitration years with the two-year, $10.5 million deal he signed in the offseason. Complacency is the enemy of young sluggers. The message from the Nats is clear: Continue to produce and you’ll be rewarded. Morse won’t be able to sneak up on opposing pitchers after last year’s breakout, but he’ll still need to generate power and crush mistakes. He’s up to the task.

How much can the Nationals expect from Stephen Strasburg? In his first full season following Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery on his right elbow, all eyes will be on the right-hander, who captivated the nation’s capital as a rookie two summers ago. Yes, there will be an innings limit. No, the Nationals won’t treat their ace with kid gloves, though they’ve set a pattern for taking a conservative approach with their ace. Strasburg thrives on competition, yet seems to understand why his recovery and rehabilitation moved a little slower than he’d like. The Nationals will stretch him as deep into the season as they can. And if they’re in contention as Strasburg is knocking on the door of his innings maximum? The Nats will cross that bridge when they come to it, but it’s a dilemma they probably wouldn’t mind confronting.

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