WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Nationals are enjoying their second and final off-day of spring training today. Their complex at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is closed. Players and staff have scattered like the four winds.
Speaking of wind, a strong cold front has swept through South Florida, and it’s supposed to dip into the 50s at night through the rest of the week. For here, that counts as winter.
My flight home has been canceled by the winter storm (which I refuse to refer to by name) and I’m rebooked on a flight out of Palm Beach International Airport late Wednesday night. They’ll have the snow cleared from the runways up north by then, right?
With less than three weeks until opening day, it’s a good time to look at a few camp storylines and see how they’ve developed. Or not developed, as the case may be. Feel free to weigh in on any or all of them in the comments section below.
Who’s the closer?: Good question. Manager Dusty Baker says he’s still formulating a plan of attack, but his choices seem to come down to two right-handers, Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen. Kelley has more closing experience from filling in when Jonathan Papelbon was on the disabled list last summer, but it’s not exactly significant in the bigger picture. While Kelley’s not a classic hard-throwing strikeout guy, neither is Treinen, though the thought of watching him induce double plays with his bowling ball sinker is enticing. Young Koda Glover is lurking on the periphery of this discussion, a source of strikeouts who hasn’t got a very long resume (and was pitching at Single-A at the start of last season). Whichever way Baker goes, the presence of veteran reliever Joe Blanton cushions the blow of losing one of his reliable setup guys to the ninth inning. If it were me, Treinen would pitch the ninth right now. But Glover could be in the role by the end of the season if his ascension continues and he remains healthy.
Who’s atop the lineup?: It’s going to be either shortstop Trea Turner or center fielder Adam Eaton. But there’s no guarantee Eaton will bat second if Turner is atop the lineup. There’s no reason not to take advantage of speed, but Baker might opt to put a bat control guy who can work the count and get on base in the two-hole and shift Eaton to sixth or seventh, thereby creating a second leadoff guy in his order and forcing teams to pitch to whoever hits behind him (instead of working around him to get to the pitcher). In a perfect world, Turner leads off with Eaton second. But putting Eaton, a left-handed hitter, second creates the potential of three left-handed swingers in a row in Eaton, right fielder Bryce Harper and second baseman Daniel Murphy (though third baseman Anthony Rendon could break up Harper and Murphy).
Can Ryan Zimmerman rebound?: No player has as much of a microscope on him as the Nationals first baseman, who is coming off a .218/.272/.370 season during which he made incredibly solid contact with little to show for it. The significant exit velocity on those loud outs got sabremetricians thinking about whether Zimmerman could turn outs into productive hits with a little more lift. So that’s been a focus of this spring for Zimmerman: getting more lift and carries on the balls he strikes (and, if Baker has his way, being more aggressive at the plate). The results so far have been a mixed bag. Zimmerman is now 0-for-17 and he’s still making some loud, well-struck outs. Last year, Zimmerman raked in spring and struggled after camp broke. Maybe the reverse will happen this year.
Who starts opening day?: If all things were equal, and there was no pain in the fractured right knuckle on his right ring finger that’s been painfully slow to heal, April 3 against the Marlins would be Max Scherzer’s start. But Scherzer has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game and the Nationals are losing what precious little time they have to stretch him out in preparation for the assignment. Now if anyone can make a miraculous recovery, it’s Scherzer - he’s got a way of willing things to happen and there’s no reason to believe he can’t will himself onto the mound at Nationals Park on April 3 (if medically cleared). But it might not be the wisest big-picture move. Would you trade one or two fewer Scherzer starts to have him healthy and pitching well deep into October? Me, too. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Stephen Strasburg trotting to the mound for opening day. It’s not carved in stone, but it’s looking more likely every time Scherzer pitches in a simulated game or a minor league game instead of facing major league hitters in Florida.