Ted Leavengood: What to take from a topsy-turvy spring

This spring has been a confusing one. The only cherry blossoms we have seen were the white puffs of snow clinging to the branches several days ago. Nationals spring training hasn’t blossomed the way we thought either. The expectations are so different after winning 98 games in 2012. We want to win them all, even the ones in March.

Like the osprey soaring on March winds above Viera, the Nationals have ridden Bryce Harper’s bat on one day only to be grounded the next as the pitching staff is pummeled. The uncertain conditions are one reason that spring training provides a poor barometer for regular season readiness. But this spring it is more difficult to sweep poor performances under the rug with a shrug with the usual, “It’s just spring training.”

There is no denying Harper has been ready for opening day for weeks. He may not hit .476 for the regular season, but he is on almost every pitch regardless who is throwing for the opposing team. Adam LaRoche is raking, as well, and there are signs that he will break quickly out of the gate in April rather than starting slow as he did before coming to Washington.

Danny Espinosa is showing signs that he may have the breakout season Ian Desmond has been promising in every interview. Yet for all of the promising portents there are just as many unsettling ones. The Nationals pitching staff was the best in the game last year. As good as the starting rotation was, the bullpen was a close second. Add Rafael Soriano and it should be a five-star resume.

Yet this spring the pitching staff has served up far too many nagging questions. The biggest ones are the two new additions, Soriano and Dan Haren. Haren has given up seven home runs in 25 innings this month. Projecting that small sample is downright scary.

Whatever physical problems Haren had last year, they resulted in noticeable reductions in his velocity. Although a strong second half put many of those concerns to bed, Haren’s velocity this spring has been well off his career norms. In his last spring tune-up before the regular season, Haren was clocking at 90 mph only occasionally and gave up four home runs against the Marlins. Not an encouraging end to his spring.

Soriano has a 9.53 spring ERA and has thrown only five innings. There are similar concerns about his velocity and a root canal procedure has limited his time on the mound and his ability to get ready for opening day.

Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard provide insurance if Soriano is not ready Monday. But Storen has yet to capture the form he had in the second half of the 2012 season. It is easy to forget that Storen won the closer job from Tyler Clippard last year on lights-out performance. There is more focus on the four runs he allowed in the final game of the National League Division Series. But before that implosion, Storen’s second-half ERA was a paltry 2.37, a batting average against of only .210.

The good news is that Clippard has yet to give up a run this spring. Like Harper, he looks ready to go. Jordan Zimmermann has similarly been impressive in his last few outings as he readies for the trip north, but questions abound about Ryan Zimmerman’s shoulder and whether he is ready to make the throws from third base.

It’s the game of expectations. Now that the Nationals have won a National League East championship, we expect nothing but rose petals leading straight to the winner’s circle. Whatever else may happen as spring training draws to a close, hopefully the Nationals will bring the Florida warmth north with them. There must be sunshine in the forecast somewhere. But either way, starting Monday, it’s going to be a sunny day all the way to November.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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