Off to Viera we go

Some people consider the day after the Super Bowl to be the beginning of baseball season.

Personally, I consider the beginning of baseball season the day that I first hear the click-clack of cleats against the dugout floor and the loud pop of a ball settling into a mitt.

That day is today.

I’m taking off for Viera, Fla., and Nationals spring training in just a couple of hours, leaving behind the offseason and 20-degree temperatures in place of long, hardball-filled days and sunny skies.

To answer a couple common questions I’ve gotten from friends and family members, no, I don’t anticipate spending any time on the beach; no, I won’t be playing much golf; and no, I won’t be enjoying the rides at Disney World. I was down at spring training for over a month last year and didn’t see a single speck of sand, pick up a single golf club or spot Mickey Mouse once.

I’ll live a pretty sheltered life down there the next seven weeks, but it will be filled with plenty of baseball, and I’ll do my best to make those of you who are unable to join me in Viera at least feel like you’ve got an inside view into all of the action.

There will be lots to cover from now until the regular season opens April 1. Roster spots will be fought over, injuries will unfortunately occur and young players will aim to make a positive impression on the team’s brass.

Here are five of the biggest storylines around the Nationals I’ll be watching during my time in Viera:

1. Gio Gonzalez’s uncertain future and its effect on his mental state

We all know the deal here. Gonzalez is among a small group of players linked to an anti-aging clinic which allegedly provided performance-enhancing drugs, and theoretically, he could be suspended by Major League Baseball if an investigation finds concrete evidence that he purchased or used banned substances. The lefty will need to deal with questions about the clinic and put any off-field issues aside as he gets ready for the season. He’ll also need to do so while competing in the World Baseball Classic, an event which the Nats hope won’t throw him off his 2012 form.

2. The Soriano/Storen/Clippard dynamic

Listen, Rafael Soriano doesn’t need to become best friends with Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard. He doesn’t need to become the third roommate or pal around with his fellow right-handed relievers 24/7. All that matters is that Soriano, Storen and Clippard are able to form an effective late-inning trio at the back of Davey Johnson’s bullpen. Soriano is the $28 million man stepping into a bullpen that excelled for much of last season and he’s expected to do big things in the closer’s role. We’ll see if he can live up to the hype and team with the other guys in the ‘pen to form one of the more dominant relief corps in the league.

3. The state of Danny Espinosa’s left shoulder

Espinosa dropped a bit of a bomb on reporters at NatsFest when he declared that he’d played the final part of the 2012 season with a torn rotator cuff. He surprised everyone a bit more when he announced that he’d go into the season attempting to play through the injury without having surgery to reattach the rotator cuff, which is almost completely torn off the bone. Espinosa feels confident he can perform at a high level even with his left shoulder at its current state, but can he maintain his stellar defense, improve his on-base percentage and cut down on his strikeouts with a shoulder that is less than completely healthy?

4. Who can provide depth in the rotation?

The Nationals have what appears to be a dynamite starting five, but beyond that, there’s a big question mark. While the Nats went all of last season without one of their original five starters that opened the year in the rotation landing on the disabled list, they can’t expect that to happen again in 2013. So who steps up to serve as valuable organizational starting depth? Christian Garcia? Ryan Perry? Someone who isn’t even on the roster yet?

5. The hunters are now the hunted

For years, the Nats were the team eyeing the squads above them in the division, waiting for their season to spring up and take the National League East for themselves. Now, the Nationals are the defending NL East champs, and the rest of the division - and the NL, overall, as well - gunning for them. Coming off a 98-win season, the Nats won’t sneak up on anyone this time around. Johnson’s motto is “World Series or bust,” so the expectations on this group can’t be any higher.

I should be at the Nationals’ facilities by mid-afternoon, and depending on the schedule today, I hope to have a few spring kick-off notes for you once I arrive. Let’s get rolling, folks.

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