Spring training storylines as Nats prepare to report

This is it, folks: It’s the final day of the offseason. After 4 1/2 months waiting for Bryce Harper to make his decision, the Nationals finally are ready to report for spring training, with Harper ... er, well, even though that decision still hasn’t been made, Nats pitchers and catchers still are going to report tomorrow morning in West Palm Beach, Fla.

One of these days - hopefully soon, but honestly who really knows? - Harper will officially be a Giant or a Phillie or a White Sox or a National or something else. That will be huge news and will significantly impact Nats camp whether he chooses to stay or go. But it’ll be far from the only significant development this spring.

There are plenty of compelling storylines that need to be followed over the next six weeks, most of them having nothing to do with Harper’s whereabouts. With that in mind, let’s run through the topics we’re most interested in monitoring down in Florida ...

Thumbnail image for Kendrick on ground with doctor sidebar.jpg* HOW DO LAST YEAR’S INJURED PLAYERS LOOK?
Howie Kendrick is atop the list of players returning from injury in 2018, and we really don’t know yet what kind of shape the veteran second baseman/left fielder is in after rupturing his Achilles tendon last May. Kendrick was optimistic about his progress two months ago when he appeared at Winterfest, but he still had a lot of hurdles to cross. The Nationals will watch him closely this spring, but they aren’t 100 percent sure yet he’ll be ready for opening day.

Nobody else is returning from an injury as severe as that one, but several others do need to show this spring that the ailments they dealt with last year are long gone. Adam Eaton needs to prove his surgically repaired knee and ankle are finally 100 percent. Sean Doolittle needs to prove his foot injury is no longer an issue. Newcomer Trevor Rosenthal will be making his first game appearances since having Tommy John surgery late in the 2017 season. Stephen Strasburg wants to show he still has the upper-90s velocity that disappeared last September after he returned from his neck and shoulder injury.

There aren’t a lot of position battles to watch this spring, but the center field job absolutely bears watching. If Harper signs elsewhere - and probably even if he returns to D.C. - the Nationals intend to give top prospect Victor Robles an opportunity to win the starting job in center field.

This has been a long time coming, and though Robles’ ascension was stalled a bit by an elbow injury and his name recognition diminished a bit by Juan Soto’s stunning emergence, there’s every reason to get excited about the possibility. Robles is an all-around stud who hits for power and average, runs the bases like a madman and tracks down everything in the outfield. The Nats want him to prove he’s ready for the job. If he’s not, Michael A. Taylor remains Plan B.

The Nationals took comfort each of the last four seasons knowing at least four-fifths of their rotation was set in stone: Max Scherzer as ace, Strasburg as No. 2, Gio Gonzalez as No. 3, Tanner Roark as No. 4. Only the first two remain in the organization after Gonzalez was traded to the Brewers in August (he’s still an unsigned free agent) and Roark was traded to the Reds in December.

In their place are $140 million prize acquisition Patrick Corbin and veteran right-hander Aníbal Sánchez, who resurrected his career last season in Atlanta. Are those two clear upgrades over the guys they’re replacing? Probably in performance, but the key will be their ability to stay healthy. Say what you want about Gonzalez and Roark, but each was guaranteed to make 30-plus starts, never needing the disabled list. Can Corbin and Sánchez do the same?

The fifth spot in the rotation, meanwhile, looked like a spring battle between Joe Ross and Erick Fedde, but then the Nationals re-signed Jeremy Hellickson last week. Ross and Fedde will still get an opportunity to compete this spring, but barring injury or disastrous performance Hellickson will get the nod when the season begins.

Davey Martinez says things are going to be different this spring. (Insert your best camel joke here.) After sitting back and letting his veterans dictate things last year as a rookie manager, Martinez intends to be more hands-on this time. He plans to spend more time drilling defense and baserunning into players’ minds, perhaps at the expense of batting practice.

Does that mean no more fun at camp? Not necessarily. Maybe Martinez will leave the camels behind this spring, but he does genuinely believe in the idea of keeping things loose. So don’t be surprised if there are some, er, unconventional stories coming out of West Palm Beach again.

Sorry, I’ve long since stopped trying to predict how this strange saga is finally going to end. Just rest assured it’s going to end. Soon. It has to. Right?

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