Early spring reasons to be encouraged or discouraged

Spring training is only 33 percent complete at this point. Two weeks have passed since pitchers and catchers reported to West Palm Beach. Four weeks remain until the Nationals face the Mets at Citi Field and officially begin their title defense.

So it’s probably unfair to start drawing any conclusions yet. But it’s not unfair to point out some things that appear to be going well at Nats camp and some things that appear not to be going so well.

With that in mind - and since I’m writing this as I prepare to board a flight home for a brief mid-spring break while Pete Kerzel takes the reins for a week - let’s look at a few encouraging and discouraging developments so far ...

We knew this was the team’s biggest strength going in, and there’s no reason to believe that’s changed at all. So far in six Grapefruit League games (one of which was canceled after two innings, one of which was called after 4 1/2 innings due to rain), Nationals starters have allowed a total of three runs on six hits in 11 1/3 innings. And keep in mind that two of the runs were surrendered by Wil Crowe and Erick Fedde, who arguably are seventh and eighth on the organizational depth chart.

Max Scherzer (zero runs, one hit) was good in his rain-canceled debut. Aníbal Sánchez (one run, two hits) was solid his debut. Joe Ross (two perfect innings) and Austin Voth (two hitless innings) were excellent in their debuts and made strong opening cases to earn the final spot in the opening day rotation.

Yes, we still need to see Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin in game action, but that will happen Friday and Saturday, respectively. And there’s little reason to believe they won’t be equally effective when they take the mound.

Tanner-Rainey-Looking-Down-Gray-Sidebar.jpgDISCOURAGING: BULLPEN COMMAND
Again, it’s super early, and none of the top three guys (Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Will Harris) have pitched yet. But the guys who have appeared in relief have really had a difficult time finding the strike zone. They’ve combined to issue 15 walks in 30 innings. They’ve also unleashed three wild pitches.

Some of those relievers are minor leaguers and non-roster invitees who aren’t in the mix for spots. But some of them are the guys who are projected to make the club and serve as the all-important depth behind the big three arms at the back end of the pen. Guys like Tanner Rainey (five baserunners in two innings), Hunter Strickland (three runs in two innings) and Javy Guerra (five baserunners in 1 1/3 innings).

Again, be very careful about drawing big conclusions off relievers’ spring training stats. But be aware of the group’s command woes here in the very early going.

I mean, you’d be crazy not to be encouraged about Soto’s chances for another big season even if he was 0-for-the-spring. But already he’s reminding us just how consistently excellent he is at the plate.

Soto is 2-for-5 with a homer, three RBIs and a walk. Both hits were to the opposite field. He’s locked in. He’s always locked in. And always trying to find ways to get better, even when that doesn’t seem possible.

Look, there is a whole lot of time left for Kieboom to prove he’s ready to be the Nationals’ opening day third baseman. But we have to acknowledge the early returns haven’t been promising.

Kieboom has played three games at third base so far. He’s been charged with two errors (both throws to first base that were way offline) and had another play not made that was scored a hit.

Wednesday’s error against the Yankees, in which Kieboom charged in to field a chopper and then airmailed his throw into the dugout, was particularly ugly. To his credit, he did get a chance to make a similar play a couple innings later and executed it well. But with so much attention on him, and given his struggles during his brief call-up last season, you do wonder how the 22-year-old is going to handle everything.

“It’s just something we have to keep working with him,” manager Davey Martinez said. “It’s just repetition. We’ve got to keep doing it. And then when the game comes, just slow down. Don’t chase things. Just let them happen naturally and make plays.”

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