Johnson says only three roster spots are up for grabs

VIERA, Fla. - Not so long ago, the Nationals would report to Space Coast Stadium for spring training with more question marks than sure things. The collection of journeymen, hangers-on, hopeful youngsters, guys who had flamed out elsewhere and a few legitimate talents would go through workouts and play games; the front office and manager would try to piece together a 25-man roster that could last the season.

Suffice it to say Davey Johnson's job this spring will be much easier.

"I'd say three spots (are) open, and that's a stretch," Johnson said Monday in his first meeting with reporters. "There'll be some competition for three spots on the whole roster. ... A lot of guys don't have to prove anything to me this year. They're not going to lose their spot in spring training by somebody hitting .500 against some Triple-A pitching."

Johnson has to decide a fifth starter, with whoever isn't in the rotation heading to the bullpen as a long man. Then he needs to settle on whether he wants to keep five outfielders and six infielders, or whether he'd prefer to go north with four outfielders and seven infielders, with one of the spare infielders able to play outfield, if necessary. Either of those alignments would mean the Nationals will carry 12 pitchers.

The outfield picture, however, is complicated. Johnson could use right fielder Jayson Werth in center and find a new right fielder, which would open a spot for top prospect Bryce Harper.Either way, it appears that Rick Ankiel has the inside track to crack the 25-man roster after being signed two weeks ago to a minor league contract and invited to spring training. Someone like Roger Bernadina or non-roster invites Jason Michaels or Brett Carroll might get caught in a numbers crunch unless the Nats keep five outfielders.

In the infield, Johnson must decide whether to carry two or three backups. Mark DeRosa will get one of the spots, assuming he shows his wrist problems are behind him. The other could go to someone like non-roster invitee Andres Blanco or rookie Steve Lombardozzi, who has impressed the manager by adding 15 pounds in the offseason. DeRosa (and outfielder Michael Morse) would back up Adam LaRoche at first base, giving a right-handed complement to LaRoche's left-handed stick. But Johnson is committed to giving his infielders - even guys like third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shortstop Ian Desmond and second baseman Danny Espinosa - "more days off."

Other nuggets from Johnson's first briefing include:

* While general manager Mike Rizzo hasn't put a number of the innings limit that will be placed on right-hander Stephen Strasburg, Johnson said Strasburg would only pitch 150-160 innings in 2012. That's in line with the 161 1/3 innings right-hander Jordan Zimmermann worked in 2011 in his first full season after Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery.

* Johnson will start Strasburg when he wants to and not hold the right-hander back just to make him available for the Nationals' home opener April 12 against the Reds.

* Right-hander Chien-Ming Wang reported some right shoulder stiffness after throwing before camp officially opened, but Johnson doesn't think it's anything that will become a lingering issue. Wang didn't appear to be experiencing any difficulty while throwing Monday. Even if Wang were hurt, the Nationals have enough depth in camp to weather an absence.

* It'll take Johnson at least until the Nationals are one to two weeks into their Grapefruit League schedule before he'll be able to set his rotation. That's a byproduct of the fact that at least 10 pitchers who could start are in camp. His biggest decision will be where to slot left-hander Gio Gonzalez.

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