Nationals spring stories to watch: Washington’s new outfield

We’re counting down the days to spring training - pitchers and catchers report a week from today - and players are already starting to trickle into Viera. To whet your appetite, Florida Today reporter Mark DeCotis has a story on a few of the early arrivals to Nationals camp; Ross Detwiler, Tom Gorzelanny and Nyjer Morgan are among them.

(DeCotis, it should be noted, is one of the finest human beings you’ll ever meet; his wife Pam and he had the D.C.-based Nats writers over for dinner a couple times last spring, just to provide some pizza and relaxation for the travel weary. Plus, he’ll indulge my closet NASCAR fanboy side with tales of the Daytona 500s he’s covered, and he loaned me money for lunch more times than I can count last year. He did whip out a hat and a pair of ridiculous neon green-tipped gloves when the weather dipped into the 40s last year, but we’ll let that slide. Check his Nats stuff out this spring, and give him a follow on Twitter. It’ll be worth your while. And maybe, if I butter him up enough, he’ll have five bucks to bum me a couple times this year.)

Anyway, we’re going to spend the rest of the week taking a look at some of the big stories to watch in Nationals camp this spring, in quick-hit form. And we’ll start this morning with a look at the Nationals’ new outfield.

What’s changed: Just about everything. The Nationals started last spring with their outfield fairly settled; Josh Willingham would start in left, Nyjer Morgan in center and Elijah Dukes in right, conventional wisdom said. Then the Nationals cut Dukes in March, Morgan struggled through a nightmarish season and Willingham played with a balky knee before having surgery in September. Then, they shocked the baseball world by signing Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract. They followed that by trading Willingham to the Athletics, turning left field over to a platoon of Michael Morse and Roger Bernadina, and signed Rick Ankiel as a fifth outfielder.

What to watch: I’m curious to see how the Nationals’ plans for left field work out. Team officials believe this will be one of the best defensive outfields in baseball, which is why Bernadina factors so prominently in the plans. But the Nationals want to get Morse around 400 at-bats this year, and he was probably underutilized last season. He hit righties at a .287 clip last year, compared to .295 against lefties, so he doesn’t need to be stashed in a straight platoon. I’d expect he’ll get some time at first base to spell Adam LaRoche, in addition to playing in left. Bernadina is here, though, because the Nationals think they’ll get plus-plus defense from him (in scout-speak). Whether his bat is good enough to keep him in the lineup remains to be seen, especially if the Nationals are in need of some length in the order.

Who’s on the hot seat: This is unquestionably a big spring for Morgan; he hit .253/.319/.314 last year, and his unseemly on-field episodes are well-documented. He enters camp as the starter in center, but Ankiel (and Jerry Hairston) can also play there, and Corey Brown could be along in a couple months. They’re also going to let Werth see some time there, and Bryce Harper will play there, too. There’s probably not enough competition here to bounce Morgan out of a job, and the Nationals still see him as a plus defender who can put up a .340-.350 OBP. They’ll play him more often in the shallow outfield this year, because he’s so good at going back on balls, and they’ll hope he fields the way he did late last season. I’m curious to see if the new alignment will help compensate for Morgan’s mediocre arm. And while Werth’s job is secure, he’s also going to be expected to live up to a contract that’s been scrutinized all winter. He’s likely to be the cleanup hitter, and the Nationals are counting on him to make his presence felt in the clubhouse. As good as Werth was in Philadelphia, he wasn’t the focal point of the team, and he’s eager to take on that responsibility.

What will happen: I think Bernadina gets the largest chunk of playing time in left, and Morse will see his at-bats spread around a couple different spots. Morgan keeps his job in center, Werth starts in right, and Ankiel is the fifth outfielder. That’s all pretty cut-and-dried, but the production is still an unknown. Morgan is the key here. If he doesn’t rebound, the Nationals might have trouble generating runs.

Let me know what you think about the outfield - what you’re excited to see this spring, and what questions you have. We’ll throw the spotlight on a different storyline every day for the rest of the week.