Three up, three down from spring training

ORLANDO, Fla. - I’m finally leaving the state of Florida, a bit more tired and with a much heavier farmer’s tan than when I arrived.

While we still have one exhibition game remaining before opening day gets here, spring training is officially over. The Nationals have worked their way into playing shape, finalized all but one spot on their 25-man roster and welcomed one fantastic new beat writer who will be covering them this season.

I’m completely unbiased on that last front.

Before I take off for the final leg of my flight home, I thought I’d pass along a few of the high points from this spring, as well as some of the parts which were disappointing.

Three Up

1. Ryan Zimmerman signs on long-term, locks in

Not only did Zimmerman thrill Nationals fans by signing a contract extension that guaranteed he’ll be hanging around Washington until at least 2019, he reminded everyone the type of player he can be when healthy. Zimmerman was on an absolute tear all spring, and finished with a .378 batting average, .434 on-base percentage and a ridiculous .711 slugging percentage, more than 100 points higher than any of his teammates. The Nats will need Zimmerman to perform at the plate early in the season with Michael Morse out, and the good news is Zimmerman will go into the opener on a hot streak.

2. Bullpen depth is much improved

Even without closer Drew Storen, who will start the season on the DL because of elbow inflammation, the Nationals bullpen looks to be miles above where it’s been in past seasons, especially in the late innings. The back of the ‘pen is stocked, with veteran Brad Lidge and hard-tossing righty Henry Rodriguez both throwing the heck out of the ball in spring and giving manager Davey Johnson plenty of quality options in the late innings to add to Storen and All-Star Tyler Clippard. The Nats also now have plenty of depth in long relief and the middle innings, and appear to have one of the most talented bullpens in the National League entering the season.

3. Starting things off right

As I pointed out yesterday, within the last week or two, we saw exactly how special the Nats’ starting rotation can be this year. Stephen Strasburg’s spring numbers weren’t exceptional overall, but the Nats’ opening day starter feels strong and delivered a couple impressive outings. Gio Gonzalez proved he can rack up the strikeouts and has the stuff and work ethic of an ace. Jordan Zimmermann had a really nice spring and showed that he might sneak up on some people outside of DC who don’t know what he can do. Edwin Jackson proved that when he pounds the strike zone, he can be incredibly effective, and John Lannan and Chien-Ming Wang give the Nats quality depth at the back of their rotation.

Three Down

1. The injuries kept on coming

Where to start on this topic? Morse, Storen, Wang and Rick Ankiel all suffered injuries this spring which will keep them out for opening day, and even guys that won’t miss the start of the season, like Adam LaRoche and Mark DeRosa, battled nagging ailments of some kind. The Nats looked like a M*A*S*H unit at times this spring, and luckily, emerge without any of the injuries appearing to be long-term issues.

2. Center field remains a question mark

After an offseason that centered partly around trying to find a solution in center field, the Nats go into opening day with no more of an answer at the position now than they had last year. Ankiel, who appeared poised to open as the default option in center, will start the season on the disabled list, and even when everyone’s fully healthy, the Nats will go with a center field rotation that includes Ankiel, Roger Bernadina, Jayson Werth and Brett Carroll. That group leaves me counting down the days until Bryce Harper arrives.

3. Which Espinosa will we get?

Johnson has said for much of the last few weeks that he likes how Danny Espinosa is swinging the bat, and the Nats second baseman goes into the regular season looking like he might be on the verge of getting into a zone. But there were times this spring where Espinosa looked pretty lost, especially from the left side of the plate. That might be due to poor hitting conditions for lefties at Space Coast Stadium, it might not. But the Nats sure hope they get 2011-first-half Espinosa and not the guy who struggled mightily in the second half and during stretches this spring.

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