On the eve of Opening Day

Below are the top five Nationals story lines when the Nats were heading into Spring Training over a month ago:

1.      The shortstop position–Ian Desmond or Cristian Guzman

2.      Right field–Elijah Dukes spot to lose

3.      Stephen Strasburg

4.      The Bullpen

5.      The Starting RotationLannan and Marquis have two of the spots locked down…the other three?

Obviously, these story lines were all pretty general–the starting rotation alone could be five story lines–but rule No. 1  in predicting the futures baseball market requires being as ambiguous as possible. On the eve of Opening Day 2010, the questions about the Opening Day roster have been answered. Here’s how the story lines of Spring Training were written over the past month-plus in Viera:

  1. The shortstop position–Guzman is in the final year of the two-year contract he signed in 2008. Desmond entered his sixth Spring Training with the Nationals knowing he was going to be an everyday shortstop–he just didn’t know if it would be with the Nationals or with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. It only took a few games before it became a foregone conclusion that Desmond was going to be the everyday shortstop. He batted .318 (21-for-66) and led the team with 15 RBI in 25 games. After Guzman was relegated to the bench, he spent the final Spring Training games testing other positions and he could be the Nats super-utility man this season.
  2. Right Field–As I said before, right field was Dukes’ spot to lose and he did just that. For whatever reasons–lack of production being the most prominent–Dukes’ luck ran dry when he was unconditionally released on St. Patrick’s Day, definitely not the luck of the Irish. The always likeable veteran, Willie Harris, will start in right field for the time being and Willy Tavares will be the second member of the platoon.

3.      Stephen Strasburg–Stephen Strasburg was possibly the best pitcher in camp. Period. Lannan was right behind him though. Strasburg handled Strasburg-mania like a veteran and walked around the clubhouse like a rookie: confident but reserved. He posted a 2.00 ERA (2 ER/ 9.0 ER) in three starts before he was sent to Minor League camp on March 20. He proved he knows how to pitch–not just throw 100 mph fastballs past Major League hitters. He isn’t scared to throw a 3-2 curveball with runners on the corners either. He will attract interest with each start but before you anoint him the savior, redeemer or rescuer of the world just remember the expectations paradox–anyone can fail when there are impossible expectations and anyone can succeed when there aren’t any expectations at all. See Eric Crouch and Ryan Leaf. One was quickly forgotten and disappeared off the radar shortly after he won the Heisman Trophy and the other one was arguably one of the biggest busts in the NFL after he was the No. 2 pick in the 1998 draft but both were equally bad. Everything is relative.

Here are a few selective top rookie campaigns over the last few seasons:

Pitcher                                 Year        Record    G             IP            SO    ERA      

CC Sabathia (Cle)                2001        17-  5       33            180.1     171     4.39      

Justin Verlander (Det)          2006        17-  9       30            186.0       124    3.63        

Rick Porcello (Det)              2009        14-  9       31            170.2         89    3.96        

Dontrelle Willis (Fla)            2003        14-  6       27            160.2       142    3.30        

Armando Galarraga (Det)    2008        13-  7       30            178.2       126    3.73       

Jair Jurrjens (Atl)                  2008        13-10       31            188.1       139   3.68       

Jeff Niemann (TB)               2009        13-  6       31            180.2       125    3.94 

J.A. Happ (Phi)                    2009        12-  4       35            166.0       119   2.93    

Josh Johnson (Fla)                2006        12-  7       31            157.0       133   3.10   

Francisco Liriano (Min)        2006        12-  3       28            121.0       144   2.16      


4.      The Bullpen–The 2009 Nationals Achilles’ heel was the bullpen with a Major League worst  5.04 ERA. They entered this spring with a bolstered pen and four spots locked down, the remaining three were open. The back end of the bullpen ended up the same way it started. Matt Capps struggled this spring but he will begin the season as the closer and Brian Bruney will be the set-up man. Sean Burnett and the ever-so-versatile right-hander Tyler Clippard will be used against lefties. Clippard held leftied to a microscopic .122 (14-for-115) batting average with 38 strikeouts in 2009. The Nats decided to begin the season with eight relievers so Jason Bergmann, Miguel Batista, Tyler Walker and Jesse English earned the final four spots.

5.       The Starting Rotation–When the pitchers and catchers reported on Feb. 19, the race for the rotation was wide open. John Lannan and Jason Marquis were the only guarantees, if there is such a thing, and the eventual fourth starter–the always dependable, 60 mph curveball-machine Livan Hernandez–wasn’t even on the team yet. There were about nine pitchers trying to fill three spots: Scott Olsen, Matt Chico, Collin Balester, Stephen Strasburg, J.D. Martin, Craig Stammen, Garrett Mock, Shairon Martis and Livan Hernandez. Craig Stammen had bone chips removed in his right elbow during the offseason and pitched brilliantly this spring to earn the third spot: he went 1-2 with a 3.72 ERA (19.1 IP/ 8 ER) and 12 strikeouts. Mock earned the final spot right before camp broke. Even with the season starting, the race for the rotation isn’t finished. It is only time before Stephen Strasburg, Chien-Ming Wang, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler make starts in 2010.

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