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Elfin: Nats Potential Adds To Spring Training Beauty

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Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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For me, unfortunately, the line that gets me going is, “the chocolate chip cookies are ready.” For seamheads like Washington sportswriters Tom Boswell, Dick Heller and Mark Zuckerman, it’s, “pitchers and catchers report.”

And that’s what happened yesterday in Viera, Fla., making today the start of spring training for your Washington Nationals, at least for the guys taking the mound and squatting behind the plate (everyone else will hit the fields on Saturday).

It was an eventful offseason for the Nats’ pitchers and catchers. Of course, the biggest story was the kidnapping and the rescue of catcher Wilson Ramos in his native Venezuela. But there was also the departure, at age 40, of 2010 starter/likely Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez from Washington’s roster, leaving the once-promising Jesus Flores backing up Ramos.

On the mound, the major offseason news was the acquisition of lefty Gio Gonzalez from Oakland in exchange for pitchers A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock and catcher Derek Norris. All except Milone were considered among the Nats’ top 10 prospects, but the 26-year-old Gonzalez gives Washington an innings-eating lefty who was 31-21 with a 3.17 ERA the past two seasons.

Gonzalez joins a rotation that had been headed by Washington’s two top arms, 23-year-old former No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg and 25-year-old Jordan Zimmermann, each of whom has made a successful comeback from Tommy John surgery.

Edwin Jackson, a 28-year-old hard-throwing free agent pickup who helped St. Louis win the World Series last fall, and 27-year-old holdover John Lannan will try to hold off Ross Detwiler (26 next month) and Chien-Ming Wang, Tom Gorzelanny and Yunesky Maya, all of whom will be 30 by July, for the final two starting spots.

Drew Storen, 24, who saved 43 games last season, his first as Washington’s closer, leads a bullpen that also includes All-Star setup man Tyler Clippard and workhorse Henry Rodriguez, who turns 25 on Saturday. Brad Lidge, 35, will try to show that he still has the stuff that made him a nearly-unhittable closer for the 2005, 2008 and 2009 National League champions.

Figuring the Nats, who have yet to top .500 since coming to Washington in 2005, to win the pennant is a serious stretch. However, the addition of Gonzalez and full seasons from Strasburg and Zimmermann have to give manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty that they have the tools to be a true contender this year.

After all, Washington was fifth in the NL with a 3.58 ERA in 2011, trailing only Eastern Division rival Atlanta and Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco from the West. Those same four teams plus Cincinnati, Florida, Milwaukee and the Phillies held foes to lower batting averages than the Nats’ staff’s .256. And only the Giants, Phillies and Brewers had a much lower opposing on base percentage than Washington’s .319.

All of that was quite a contrast from just three years earlier when the rotation included Lannan and the immortal trio of Odalis Perez, Tim Redding and Jason Bergmann or 2009 when the closer was Mike MacDougal (who?). Those teams combined to lose 205 games.

The last two years the Nats cut those losses to 174. Another 15-game improvement in 2012, which is quite possible with the addition of Gonzalez and a lot more than 31 starts from Strasburg and Zimmermann combined — would give Washington 95 curly W’s and almost certainly a playoff spot.

Just the kind of dreamy thought appropriate for the day that the pitchers and catchers suit up for the first time in 2012.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.

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