Rizzo on Garcia’s role, Skole’s progress, Rodriguez’s health

VIERA, Fla. - Is Christian Garcia a starter? Is the promising 27-year-old a reliever?

No one knows at this point, not even Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo or manager Davey Johnson. The Nationals’ decision makers are coming into this spring with an open mind on Garcia, letting how the righty pitches and how their pitching staff is constructed steer their decision on how Garcia will be used.

“We know he can do both, and that’s an important thing,” Rizzo said early this afternoon. “Our thought process is it’s easier for a starter to (evolve) into being a short reliever than it is to take a short reliever and stretch him out to be a starter.”

Rizzo noted that the Nationals will have to take Garcia’s innings into account when eventually deciding how to use him. While Garcia has worked more than 100 innings in a season in the past, that season came all the way back in 2005, when Garcia was a starter in the low levels of the Yankees’ system.

Eight seasons, two Tommy John surgeries and one role change later, Garcia’s arm isn’t used to a starter’s workload. He pitched 67 2/3 innings last season, so if he is converted into a starter this season, the Nationals will need to monitor his usage carefully. Rizzo says the Nats will balance both the short- and long-term views when determining Garcia’s role.

“We’re going to factor when we break camp where we’re at and what our needs are,” Rizzo said. “What do the numbers look like in the bullpen? What do the numbers look like in the rotation? And we’ll make our decision based on that.”

One guy who has been tough to miss in workouts thus far is Matt Skole, the Nationals’ reigning minor league Player of the Year. Skole, who was in a batting practice group with Anthony Rendon, Micah Owings, Carlos Rivero and Zach Walters today, has been mashing pitches early in camp. One team executive told me that Skole still needs to work on the other aspects of his game, like hitting for contact and polishing his defensive skills, but the Nats clearly like the burly former fifth-round pick.

“He’s a big, strong, left-handed bat, so we know what he can do as far as BP goes,” Rizzo said. “He can hit ‘em as far as anybody. He’s produced on the field for us at each level, and we’re excited to see his progression and we see him getting better each and every time we lay eyes on him. He’s improving other parts of his game. He came in from when we drafted him out of Georgia Tech, he did a lot of footwork, agility drills to do at third base, and he really came a long way defensively as a first baseman.

“We feel comfortable that the bat/power combination and a guy that can play both corner spots in the infield and having left-handed power, it’s a good asset to have.”

Skole has come up as a third baseman, but his 6-foot-4, 230-lb. frame has led some to wonder whether he’d be better served playing first base in the future. While he says that Skole “looks very comfortable” at first base (Skole got time at first during his time in the Arizona Fall League), Rizzo believes that the 23-year-old still projects as a third baseman.

“He made great progress footwork-wise,” Rizzo said. “He’s got the hands and the arm to play it, and he’s got quickness rather than big range. He’s got good quickness and he’s a short-burst guy. We feel that he can handle the physical rigors of third base.”

Henry Rodriguez, who is still working back from elbow surgery last August, played catch on flat ground again today, and Rizzo says the flame-throwing righty is “very close” to throwing off a mound.

“Henry’s improving,” Rizzo said. “He’s feeling really good about it. He’s walking around with a smile on his face, so that tells me that his arm is feeling good.”

Owings has only gotten a few days under his belt as a position player so far, but the former pitcher has drawn the eye of Rizzo and Johnson. It’s clear that the Nationals haven’t promised Owings anything as far as a roster spot or an early promotion to the big leagues. The 30-year-old will need to earn his way back to the majors.

“He’s going to have to establish himself as an offensive player,” Rizzo said. “He’s going to have to come up here and show us what he can do. There’s no promises made to him that he’s going to be in the big leagues or he’s going to go to the minor leagues. It’s just that he’s going to come here and he’s going to see himself where he’s at and we’re going to see where he’s at. I think that this is a work in progress, and especially with an established bench and lineup like we have, he’s going to have to go and see what he can do. At the end of spring, we’ll see where he’s at.”

Rizzo was asked whether there was anything early in camp which stood out to him or was a bit of a pleasant surprise.

“I’m pleased with the physical condition that everyone showed up in,” he said. “Guys are in shape, they’re getting their cardio in, they’re getting their work in. You guys (reporters) go past the weight room all the time. It’s jam-packed. Guys are willing to go in there, they want to go in there and I think it shows on the field. There’s very few guys that are curtailed in what they can do. I think that helps the preparation.”

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