Some encouraging (and discouraging) spring developments

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - We are now exactly two weeks from opening day. Time flies when you’re having fun, right? The home stretch of spring training has arrived for the Nationals, who are now lining up their rotation for the regular season, setting up bullpen roles and deciding the composition of their bench.

There is still plenty left to play out before the team heads north next Thursday night, but there also has been plenty of time here to draw a few conclusions, some positive and some negative.

So as the Nationals prepare for today’s game at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches against the Yankees (1 p.m. on MASN) let’s run through both the encouraging and the discouraging developments of the spring so far ...

Harper-Revved-Up-Gray-Sidebar.jpgEncouraging: 2017 Bryce Harper looks much more like 2015 Bryce Harper than 2016 Bryce Harper. It’s not just the stats (six homers, 1.324 OPS, seven walks to only five strikeouts) but it’s also the way Harper looks at the plate. His swing is more balanced, allowing him to drive outside pitches in a manner he couldn’t last season. He’s more patient, perfectly willing to take his walks instead of chasing pitches out of the zone in a desperate attempt to make something happen. And he appears to be healthy, maybe the most encouraging thing of all.

Discouraging: Max Scherzer hasn’t pitched in a Grapefruit League game yet. That is expected to change in a couple of days, with Scherzer likely to start Wednesday against the Cardinals. That should still give him enough time to make three exhibition starts and still pitch the Nationals’ third game of the season (April 6 versus the Marlins). So that’s encouraging. But the fact the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner has taken this long to recover from a stress fracture in his ring finger, and still has to throw the majority of his fastballs with a three-fingered grip, remains discouraging.

Encouraging: Gio Gonz├ílez has been lights-out this spring. The lefty has allowed only one run and five hits in 12 innings. And most importantly, he has been remarkably efficient, needing only 49 pitches to complete five innings in his most recent start. Will that carry over into the season? There’s no way to know. But it’s been awfully encouraging to see Gonz├ílez pitch like this so far this spring, and reason for cautious optimism heading into the season.

Discouraging: Matt Wieters hasn’t shown much so far in limited game action. Signed one week into camp, he spent the next two weeks learning the pitching staff and getting himself into game shape. He has now played in five games, going just 2-for-12 at the plate with zero walks and five strikeouts. As Dusty Baker pointed out, the challenge for Wieters to get his swing together is even greater because he’s a switch-hitter and has to work on things from both sides of the plate. There’s still time, but don’t be surprised if Wieters takes a little while to heat up after the season begins.

Encouraging: Joe Blanton, despite his late signing, looks great and looks ready for regular season action already. The veteran reliever reported to camp in good physical condition and didn’t need long to get himself into game action. He has made three Grapefruit League appearances so far but yesterday threw three innings in a minor league game.

Discouraging: Tanner Roark and Daniel Murphy have barely seen any action in the World Baseball Classic, and that could hurt them once they rejoin the Nationals later this week. Roark has thrown only 1 1/3 innings in the last two weeks, though he is scheduled to start for Team USA in Tuesday night’s semifinal against Japan. Murphy, meanwhile, has been in the lineup for only two of the Americans’ six WBC games, going 0-for-6. He already was trying to get his timing down when he left Nats camp. He won’t have much time to get it down once he returns either Thursday or Friday.

Encouraging: Michael A. Taylor and Wilmer Difo have been tearing the cover off the ball, creating a potentially interesting race for the final spot on the opening day bench. Taylor, who has a well-developed reputation for being a Grapefruit League MVP, is batting .444 (16-for-36) with five extra-base hits and six stolen bases. He also has cut down on his strikeout rate, with only seven in those 36 at-bats. Difo is hitting .351 (13-for-37) with four extra-base hits. He also has shown to be quite versatile, even getting some action in center field as the Nats try to make him more valuable off the bench.

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