Questions and answers halfway through camp

The Nationals may have 20 days of games left on their spring schedule, but on Saturday, they officially began the second half of their camp. Less than three weeks remain before they finish the exhibition season, and they’ve spent more time readying themselves for the 2010 regular season than they have left in Florida. And with an 0-10 spring mark - counting a pair of split-squad losses - they’ve also kicked up a few questions.

No one in the Nationals clubhouse will bat an eye at the record, but it was clear on Sunday that manager Jim Riggleman isn’t thrilled with the outcome.

“There aren’t any bad habits,” he said. “We’re just not winning ballgames.”

So a day or two past the halfway point in the spring, let’s look at a few questions that have emerged:

1. Do the Nationals have enough depth to send Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen to the minors?

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This question was on everyone’s minds at the beginning of the spring, and it’s only intensified as Strasburg and Storen have excelled while many of the Nationals’ established players have slumped. There was little question then, and there’s even less now, that both players have the talent to be on the major league roster now. But the cost is still the same as it always was - the Nationals don’t want to have either player start in the majors, only to get sent down to the minors. Mike Rizzo said on Sunday that when the two pitchers come to the majors, the Nationals want it to be for good. That sounds similar to the Orioles’ approach with Matt Wieters last spring, and he was up by the end of May after a quick tour of the Orioles’ minor league system. It could be sooner for Storen, but the guess here is that both players still start in the minors and make quick surges to the big leagues.

2. How much better is the Nationals’ bullpen than last year’s?
The performances of Sean Burnett (22.50 ERA), Tyler Walker (37.12) and Matt Capps (11.25) certainly raise some concerns about this group, which was completely overhauled during the course of the 2009 season and saw further amendments during the winter. Capps has been hurt by some poor defense on a couple occasions, so the five runs he’s given up in four innings could easily be less. Burnett, like many of the Nationals’ relievers, has struggled to keep the ball down, and he’s been hurt by that in windy conditions.

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But Brian Bruney pitched a perfect ninth on Sunday, and Tyler Clippard has been solid other than his five-walk performance yesterday. Some of the relievers’ stats look gaudy because they’re being left in games where Riggleman would normally remove them in the regular season. There’s certainly reason to question whether the group has enough depth to survive one or two erratic performances during the season, and that could lead to a quicker call for Storen than anticipated. The numbers aren’t a complete reflection of how the relievers are throwing, but there are some mistakes to be corrected - particularly with the number of walks the group is issuing.

3. Who should be in the starting lineup, and in what order?
There are few open spots in the Nationals’ lineup, but the battles that do exist could cut a wide swath of possibilities. Ian Desmond is making a strong case to be the everyday shortstop, hitting .455 with a team-best 11 RBI and staying away from the errors that have pockmarked his game in the field. Cristian Guzman will be back from Washington early this week, where he and his wife were welcoming the birth of their baby daughter, and the shortstop will resume work to strengthen his surgically-repaired shoulder. The guess here is Desmond still starts in the minors, but if Guzman struggles to start the year, it’s possible Desmond gets a quick call-up. The Nationals’ 25-man roster could look very different in June than it does on Opening Day, with Strasburg, Storen, Desmond and Chien-Ming Wang all likely additions.

4. What surprises are likely to make the roster?
Mike Morse is the guy that sticks out here; he’s continued to build on a strong September and is hitting .269 with two homers and seven RBI this spring. Morse has shown good hands and feet at first base on several occasions; he makes sense as a backup for Adam Dunn who can play a number of other positions and bring some pop off the bench. Aaron Thompson has been tremendous in both of his outings, and there’s a possibility he makes it as a reliever. And if you can call Garrett Mock, a 26-year-old who the Nationals have given plenty of opportunities, a surprise, he’s made his case this spring. Mock has a 3.60 ERA in a pair of starts - he’ll make his third one tonight - and hasn’t shown any tendencies to nibble around the plate, run his pitch count up and get himself in trouble with walks. Right now, he looks like the fifth starter.

5. At what point should I be concerned?
We saw some signs from Riggleman on Sunday that some things need to be cleaned up, and he was in a long meeting with Rizzo and his coaching staff after Sunday’s game. The record is an issue only as it measures the Nationals’ progress this spring, and if they start winning games toward the end of the month, the start is a non-issue. The progression of the bullpen is an area to watch, as is the emergence of players like Nyjer Morgan from long spring slumps. But the correlations between spring training success and regular-season wins are spotty at best. It’s difficult to cover over 10 straight losses, but the Nationals can do that by playing good baseball at the end of this month.