WASHINGTON — Five things to know about the Washington Nationals as spring training starts:
ROOKIE SKIPPER: Former All-Star third baseman Matt Williams is Washington’s new manager, taking over from Davey Johnson, who retired after last season. Johnson won NL Manager of the Year honors when the Nationals led the majors with 98 wins in 2012, but the team got off to a terrible start in 2013 and won 12 fewer games, missing the playoffs. Williams wants to use modern elements of the sport such as advanced scouting to help fielders and hitters, saying at his introductory news conference: “If you don’t get along with the times, bro, you better just step aside.” Says outfielder Jayson Werth: “I’ve got a lot of confidence in Matt, with all his playing experience, the type of guy he is, his overall baseball IQ.”
HARPER AND STRASBURG: The team’s pair of young cornerstones and No. 1 overall draft picks, outfielder Bryce Harper and right-hander Stephen Strasburg, had surgery in the offseason, so their progress in camp will be tracked closely. Harper has shown that when he’s healthy, he’s one of the most dynamic players in baseball. But his propensity for slamming into outfield walls has made things tough on his left knee, in particular, and he spoke this offseason about how it was “not very fun to go through a year, a year and a half, with pain.”
QUITE A ROTATION: Strasburg already was teaming with Gio Gonzalez and 19-game winner Jordan Zimmermann, but general manager Mike Rizzo went out and added Doug Fister in a trade with the Detroit Tigers. That’s quite a replacement for Dan Haren, who the team let go as a free agent, and there will be competition in camp to see who’ll take over the fifth spot, with lefty Ross Detwiler one possibility. Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard form the back end of a bullpen that was shaky at times last season; lefty Jerry Blevins arrived in a deal with the Oakland Athletics. Clippard’s take: “Our pitching staff is ridiculous. … I’ll put our arms up against anybody in the league.”
WHO’S ON SECOND?: Most of the lineup is set entering spring, but one place where there’s expected to be a fight over the job is second base, where Danny Espinosa began 2013 as the starter before being demoted to the minors and replaced by rookie Anthony Rendon. “Danny’s got a good chance at a bounce-back season and getting back to the player he was a couple of seasons ago,” Rizzo says.
ZIMMERMAN AT FIRST: Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, long the face of the franchise, seemed to solve his post-shoulder-surgery throwing yips last season, but there are plans to try him some at first base, perhaps in advance of a permanent move across the diamond. Incumbent first baseman Adam LaRoche, a real asset on defense, is entering the last year of his contract, and the team won’t want to give him a full set of at-bats in 2014, anyway, if his hitting is as poor as it was in 2013: .237 batting average, .332 on-base percentage, .403 slugging percentage.
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