VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals officially start the second half of their spring schedule today when the Tigers come to town, and as we wind into the final two weeks before opening day, the team's goals will become more about keeping players sharp and whittling down the last few spots on the roster that are up for grabs.
The Nationals still have 42 players in camp, but by my count, there are 36 players in camp that realistically have a shot of making the 25-man roster; I'm excluding Derek Norris and Chris Marrero (too inexperienced), as well as Chien-Ming Wang, Elvin Ramirez Corey Brown and Stephen Strasburg (too injured). For the rest of the roster, the next two weeks will determine whether they start the season on the opening day roster.
"The thing about who makes the club on opening day is, it's a great honor and all that," manager Jim Riggleman said. "But almost every club in baseball, within 10 days, will have a couple changes on there. There are some tough questions to answer opening day, because of waivers and you don't want to lose certain players. But nobody starts with 25 and ends with the same 25. It just doesn't happen."
Here are a few notes from Riggleman's morning press conference about the players still in camp:
* Brian Bixler, who's hitting .444 this spring, still has a chance, albeit a small one, to make the roster out of camp. The Nationals have plenty of infielders, but few good options for a right-handed bat off the bench. If Bixler can play the outfield, he might have a shot to stick. "The numbers work against him, and I'm sure he knows that," Riggleman said. "But he's really played well. It's very comforting to know we kept him in camp because he's played so good. He keeps making plays and swinging the bat pretty good. He's still in the mix."
* The Nationals only need four starters in the first week and a half of the season, but Riggleman said they haven't determined yet whether the team can send one to the minors and carry an extra reliever to start the season. "There's too many variables there still," Riggleman said. "We're trying to see where the rotation will end up. So whoever that fifth guy is in the rotation, is that somebody who goes to the bullpen (to start the year)? There are too many things there that affect it, so we really can't nail it down yet." Some of that will depend on whether the Nationals decide to send a starter to the minors to begin the year; John Lannan and Jordan Zimmermann have an option left, but they are both likely to pitch in the first few games of the season.
* Brown, who sprained his ankle on March 1, still isn't ready to play. "He said the first few days, progress was great," Riggleman said. "Since then, the progress has been slower. He's not ready to go full-bore with it yet. He's a center fielder, so he's really got to be ready to go when we put him out there."
* Chris Marrero is still in Nationals camp, which is probably partially a function of the Nationals needing a first baseman to alternate with Adam LaRoche. But he's hitting .438/.471/.563 in nine games, and has turned some heads. "He's been really good," Riggleman said. "He looks better around the bag, defensively. He's made some adjustments. His stance, and where his hands are, are different than last year. I think somebody got to him at (Double-A) Harrisburg last year, maybe (hitting coach) Troy Gingrich, maybe Chris himself. But he's put his hands in a place he's really comfortable with, and he's driving the ball to right center. He's really making a statement he's going to be a big league player."