Johnson on Detwiler, Espinosa, Rivero, Kobernus and more

LAKELAND, Fla. - Talk about your basic frying pan-fire conundrum.

Nationals left-hander Ross Detwiler might not be facing the best international hitters in the World Baseball Classic now that Team USA has been eliminated. Instead, he gets one of the toughest lineups in the majors today, when the Detroit Tigers trot out what could be their opening day order.

“They’ve got some of the best hitters in baseball on this ballclub,” said manager Davey Johnson, a smile crossing his face. “I didn’t want him to miss this experience.”

How Detwiler fares against Tigers sluggers like defending American League Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, first baseman Prince Fielder and DH Victor Martinez will give Johnson a good read on where his probable fifth starter is two weeks from the April 1 opener against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park.

“I know he’s been kind of a little tired from traveling, and could have it easier, but I want to see him pitch,” Johnson said. “This is part of the learning process, too. We face these guys during the year, too, and he might be facing them during the year. I think it’s nice to know how guys react to your stuff. It gives you a little insight.”

So who has the advantage at this point in spring training: a hitter seeing an unfamiliar pitcher or a pitcher who’s largely an unknown quantity to a lineup of professional bats?

“They say that ... hitters get more out of facing a pitcher, learn how to make adjustments and stuff,” Johnson said. “But I think it’s the other way around. I think pitchers need to know the honey holes of hitters and how to stay out of there, how to pitch to them, what works.”

Detwiler will be limited to between 60-70 pitches today, the manager said.

* If second baseman Danny Espinosa has experienced any problems with the torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder, which he opted to strengthen in the offseason instead of having surgery, it’s not evident. Espinosa is hitting .293 entering today’s game and hasn’t skipped a beat in the field.

“I like where he’s at,” Johnson said.

Johnson particularly likes what he’s seeing from the switch-hitting Espinosa’s left-handed stroke.

“It’s more compact, more direct,” Johnson said. “It’s more consistent. I think he’s getting more comfortable with it. I’ll be watching that, but I like what I’ve been seeing. I like the fact that he seems happy where he’s at - that’s the main thing.”

* The Nationals still aren’t sure what will become of infielder/outfielder Carlos Rivero, a 24-year-old hitter they like who faces an uphill battle cracking the 25-man roster out of spring training.

Because he’s out of options, the Nationals must either keep Rivero - who hit .303 with 10 homers and 64 RBIs at Triple-A Syracuse in 2012 - or expose him to waivers. They don’t think he’d pass through unclaimed.

Barring an injury or trade, there doesn’t seem to be a place for Rivero, no matter how enamored the Nats are of his potential. Though he’s hitting only .194 this spring, Rivero has driven in nine runs, second on the team to Anthony Rendon’s 11.

“I would hope he would remain in our organization,” Johnson said. “Only time will tell.”

* Johnson had hoped the Tigers would return Rule 5 pick Jeff Kobernus to the Nats after spring training, but Kobernus, a second baseman, is locked into a battle with outfielder Quintin Berry for one of the final spots on Detroit’s 25-man roster.

Because he was taken in the Rule 5 draft, Kobernus must remain on the Tigers’ 25-man roster for the entire season or be offered back to the Nationals for half of the $50,000 draft price.

* Steve Lombardozzi is playing third base today and Johnson reminded reporters in his pregame chat with them that he’ll continue to press Espinosa and shortstop Ian Desmond to take some time off during the season, something they usually don’t like to do.

“I’ve been sitting them down this spring,” Johnson said. “Desi and Espi, they like to play - and that’s great. So do my guys on the bench. But (I) was also trying to find out who they were. In 2011, when I came in, I went to my bench and said, ‘You ain’t playing. These guys need it more than you.’ ... I want them to have every experience they can so they can get better. In ‘11, we weren’t a contending team; we were trying to establish some guys in positions and we did that. Now it’s time I can give guys some rest and I feel the guys I’m replacing them with, there won’t be that great a drop-off.”

Last offseason, Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo insisted there was a way for the Nationals to get Lombardozzi 300 at-bats as a reserve infielder, something that seemed improbable considering how hard it is to get Desmond and Espinosa off the field. Lombardozzi wound up playing 126 games and had 384 at-bats.

* Expect to see more of the Nats’ regulars over the next couple of weeks. That means some veterans will make long rides to Jupiter, where the Nationals play the Marlins and Cardinals a total of three times, or play day games after night games.

Johnson wants to “get the whip out” to make sure his regulars are prepared.

“Everybody’s going. ... At the end of the second-to-last week week, I like to have everybody playing pretty much every day,” he said. “I think they’re right where I want them to be right now. They’ve played as much as I want them to play to this point. I don’t think I wore them out or anything. I want this coming week for people to get to where I feel comfortable with them starting the season. That entails legs, arms and timing.”

The manager likely will make some concessions for veterans, like letting them drive to road games in their own cars or allowing them to hand-pick a game to miss.

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