In past years, the Nationals have entered spring training with a number of jobs up for grabs.
Position players have battled for starting roles, pitchers have competed for spots in the rotation or a seat in the bullpen and guys lower down the depth chart have tried to merely get their name on the 25-man roster.
This spring, we’ll see some of that; a couple of bullpen jobs will be there for the taking, and a seat on the bench can possibly be won with a strong effort in camp, as well.
For the most part, however, the Nationals’ opening day roster appears to be set. The eight starting position players are in place, the rotation appears full and many of the bullpen and bench roles have already been locked down.
An injury can change that in a hurry, of course, but let’s think positively for now.
That leaves few spots truly up for grabs in spring training, but don’t take that to mean there won’t be any intriguing battles for playing time. Take, for instance, the Nationals’ starting catching job.
The Nats will enter camp with two quality starting catchers: Wilson Ramos, coming off a major knee injury suffered early last season, and Kurt Suzuki, who stabilized the position last season after coming over in a trade with the A’s and provided a number of clutch hits down the stretch.
You could present a case that both guys are worthy of the starting gig. Suzuki established himself in the season’s final two months and the postseason, hitting .267 with five homers and 25 RBIs in 43 games with the Nats and developing a rapport with the Nationals’ pitchers. Ramos, on the other hand, is still viewed as the Nats’ catcher of the future. He has plenty of pop in his bat and strong defensive skills, as well.
So why did manager Davey Johnson announce at the Winter Meetings last month that Suzuki is in line to be his starting catcher on opening day? Why did he make this surprising piece of news known even before a chest protector has been snapped on or a ball has popped into a catcher’s mitt?
It likely all has to do with expectations.
Ramos is still working back from that torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee, and almost certainly won’t be 100 percent healthy entering spring training. He’ll need some time to get back into the flow, but also will need to start trusting that the knee is stable and can handle a full workload behind the plate.
Regardless of how Ramos’ right knee felt physically, that trust takes time to develop. You don’t see football players come back from a torn ACL and immediately start cutting and juking guys out on gamedays. (Well, with the exception maybe of Adrian Peterson.) They build up to that level, and need to feel confident that the knee is sound and won’t give out on them.
The Nats don’t want to put too much pressure on Ramos right out of the gate and have him thinking he needs to rush back to win the opening day starting job. Instead, they would rather see him work his way into form slowly without any pressure or specific dates looming over him.
Once Ramos has started to feel completely comfortable behind the plate, then the Nats can entertain the idea of him truly battling Suzuki for the starting job.
And once that time comes, be it late in spring training or early on in the regular season, it should be a fun battle to watch.