VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals enjoyed their lone day off of the entire spring Tuesday - who am I kidding, reporters covering the Nats really enjoyed their lone day off of the entire spring - but now they return to the field for the home stretch.
There are eight remaining days of Grapefruit League games, beginning at 5:05 p.m. this afternoon when the Nationals host the Yankees (televised on MASN, by the way). Up to this point, the spring has been about making sure everyone gets their work in and stays healthy, and making preliminary evaluations on players who are competing for roster spots.
Now it's all about the final push. Veterans need to start playing more and making sure they're in regular season mode by the time they head north next Wednesday. And those players on the roster bubble need to make their cases now for inclusion on that charter flight up to D.C. Can't be waiting any longer to do it.
With that in mind, here are five questions the Nationals still need to answer before they pack up and leave Viera for good in a week ...
Who's playing short?
Whether or not this truly has been an open competition all spring is debatable, but one way or another the Nationals have to make a formal decision on the one position in the field that seemingly was up for grabs.
Consensus opinion all along has stated Danny Espinosa would be the starting shortstop on opening day, backed up by Stephen Drew, with Trea Turner playing every day at Triple-A Syracuse in anticipation of a promotion to Washington at some point. And though there have been some moments when you might have thought otherwise, that plan still appears to be the safest bet.
Espinosa's 0-for-18 to begin Grapefruit League play raised plenty of eyebrows, but he has made some significant strides of late, going 3-for-7 with a home run from the left side of the plate. Drew (7-for-23, two doubles, seven RBIs) has been solid, though not necessarily so impressive that he's forced his way into the starting job.
Turner, meanwhile, has had a few shining moments. But his overall numbers (7-for-30, a homer, four RBIs, six stolen bases) don't blow you away to the point you're ready to hand him the job. The kid will be the Nationals' starting shortstop eventually, but it still looks like that won't happen on April 4.
Can the rotation stay healthy heading into opening day?
The Nationals have been quite fortunate to avoid major injuries this spring, unlike a year ago when Denard Span, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg all got hurt in Florida, while Jayson Werth was still recovering from his offseason shoulder surgery.
Bronson Arroyo's shoulder injury, though, puts some added pressure on the rest of the projected opening day rotation to stay healthy. Because the options behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and Joe Ross aren't so great. With the organization preferring to hold back top prospect Lucas Giolito to make sure he has enough innings left for August, September and possibly October, the Nationals' current No. 6 starter probably is A.J. Cole, Taylor Jordan or Yusmeiro Petit.
Point is, they really need to make sure their top five starters remain healthy and good to go when the season begins.
Who's in the bullpen, and who's in what role?
This is probably the biggest question mark in camp, and could remain that way into the season. The Nationals overhauled their bullpen over the winter, but very little has actually been settled to date.
We know Jonathan Papelbon is the closer, though he could benefit from a bit more work (he has only thrown 3 2/3 innings so far). We know Shawn Kelley, Felipe Rivero, Oliver Perez and Petit are making the club, but we don't know what role Kelley and Rivero (in particular) will hold. Is Kelley the eighth-inning guy? Is Rivero going to be used in late innings?
That still leaves two remaining jobs up for grabs over the final week of camp, with a host of candidates still in the mix: right-handers Blake Treinen, Trevor Gott, Rafael Martin, Matt Belisle and Nick Masset, plus lefties Sean Burnett and Aaron Laffey.
Do the Nats keep three lefties, with Burnett making a surprising return after his second career Tommy John surgery? Do Treinen and/or Gott make it thanks to their impressive stuff? Or do veterans like Belisle and Masset have a leg up because the young pitchers still have minor league options?
Who in the lineup is a table-setter and who is a run-producer?
Dusty Baker has tinkered with all kinds of lineup combinations so far as he tries to settle on one that best maximizes his hitters' abilities. Only a few spots are locked in so far: Ben Revere will lead off, Bryce Harper will bat third, Ryan Zimmerman will bat fourth, Wilson Ramos will be toward the bottom of the lineup.
The biggest question probably involves the No. 2 hitter in Baker's lineup? Does he go with contact specialist Daniel Murphy (despite the fact that would stack three straight left-handed hitters atop the lineup)? Does he go with an all-around offensive player like Anthony Rendon? Or does he view the young third baseman as more of an "RBI man," to steal one of Dusty's favorite descriptions? And where does Jayson Werth figure into the whole situation?
Look for some clarity on all this over the final week of the spring.
Who gets the last spot on the bench?
It's never easy selecting a 25th man, and it especially won't be easy for the Nationals this spring. Let's assume four bench spots are already locked up: backup catcher Jose Lobaton, backup infielder Drew, backup first baseman and lefty pinch-hitter Clint Robinson and fourth outfielder Michael A. Taylor.
So who's left for that final spot on the bench? There are no shortage of candidates: Tyler Moore, Chris Heisey, Matt den Dekker, Reed Johnson, Scott Sizemore, Tony Campana and Brendan Ryan.
The real question is this: Do the Nats take the best player out of that group, or the one who best fits what they need?
The best all-around player might well be den Dekker, who impressed late last season. But they already have two left-handed batters (Drew, Robinson) and a switch-hitter (Lobaton) on their projected bench. Can they really add another to that mix? Heisey has a strong record as a pinch-hitter, but doesn't bring a whole lot more to the table. Johnson is a capable outfielder and veteran at the plate, but how much does he have left at 39? Would the speed of Campana be more valuable? Or would it be worth it to keep another infielder like Sizemore or Ryan.
And then, of course, there is Moore. A stalwart of the organization since he was drafted in 2008 and then reached the big leagues in 2012, the 29-year-old may have reached a career crossroads. Moore is struggling this spring, with only three hits in 29 at-bats. He's out of options. He hasn't shown an ability to hit consistently off the bench since his impressive rookie season. The Nationals are going to have to make a decision on him soon.