Nats have work to do to make run in NL East
Rotation, first base remain critical holes in improving roster
General manager Mike Rizzo has done his best to improve the Nationals this offseason, signing free agents, including outfielder Jayson Werth and Rick Ankiel.
But there are still 10 burning questions about Washington heading into Spring Training. MLB.com answers those inquiries and provides insight on what might happen to the team in 2011.
1. Who will be the Nationals' closer in 2011?
Manager Jim Riggleman said numerous times during the offseason that the job is up for grabs. The Nationals have four good choices for the role. Drew Storen, who became the closer after Matt Capps was dealt to the Twins in July, is the leading candidate. Storen had five saves with a respectable 3.58 ERA and will be given every chance to prove himself during Spring Training.
Left-hander Sean Burnett and right-hander Tyler Clippard were virtually unhittable, but Riggleman seems to like them better when they are pitching in the seventh and eighth innings. Storen's biggest competition may be Henry Rodriguez, who went 1-0 with a 4.55 ERA in 29 appearances with the Athletics in just his second year as a full-time reliever. He posted 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings (33 K's in 27 2/3 frames) and a .240 batting average against, including a .207 mark against right-handed batters.
2. Who will be the Opening Day left fielder?
The battle will be between Ankiel and Roger Bernadina. Bernadina ended the season in a hitting slump, while Ankiel had a season he would like to forget. Whomever wins the job will be in a platoon situation with Mike Morse, who had the best season of his career.
3. When will Bryce Harper make his big league debut?
Harper is projected to be in the Majors by 2013, but, thus far, the 18-year old has proven he could play with professionals. He wasn't over matched in the instructional league or the Arizona Fall League. He will be in Major League Spring Training and will face big league pitching for the first time.
It wouldn't come as a surprise if Harper played well and made the team out of Spring Training. It can be done. Remember Al Kaline? He made his Major League debut at the age of 18 and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.
4. Will Nyjer Morgan become a platoon player?
The left-handed hitting Morgan is just 58-for-290 (.200) in his career against left-handed pitching. If Morgan doesn't show any improvement, look for Werth to play center field when left-handers are on the mound. Riggleman said he is going to give Morgan every chance to show that he can hit against southpaws.
5. When will Stephen Strasburg make his return to the big leagues?
As of now, Strasburg is expected to play in a Major League game by the end of the 2011 season. Three months after having Tommy John surgery, Strasburg said that his right elbow is getting stronger and he plans to see Dr. Lewis Yocum after the holidays. At that time, Strasburg should know when he will resume baseball activities.
In the meantime, Strasburg continues to strengthen his elbow and shoulder. He works out two to three times per week and the sessions last about three hours. Strasburg hopes to start throwing a few weeks before Spring Training starts in Viera, Fla.
6. Can the Nationals get out of fifth place in the National League East for the first time since 2007?
It depends on who they get before Opening Day. Rizzo is still looking for starting pitching, a first baseman and more offense.
7. Will Ivan Rodriguez collect career hit No. 3,000 in 2011?
As of now, the answer is no. The plan is to have Rodriguez platoon behind the plate with Wilson Ramos during the first half of the season. After the All-Star break, Ramos is expected to take over the role full time. It would not come as a surprise if Rodriguez is on the trade block because the team has to make room for Jesus Flores, who has missed most of the past two years because of shoulder problems. Before the injury, Flores was productive with the bat and behind the plate.
8. What is the Nationals' biggest need?
Starting pitching. Rizzo has been trying to get an ace all offseason. He thought he had a deal in place to acquire right-hander Zack Greinke, but Greinke used his no-trade clause and turned the deal down, instead accepting a trade to the Brewers. If the Nationals are unable to sign right-handers Carl Pavano and Brandon Webb, Washington may have to look at the trade market. It's almost a certainty that the team will go after Rays right-hander Matt Garza -- if he's available. Rizzo said he could get starting pitching by trading some of the team's prospects. We'll see if that can happen.
9. Should the Nationals re-sign Willie Harris?
The answer is yes. Currently, the Nationals have no one who can play more than three positions. Harris can play every position except for pitcher, first base or squat behind the plate. He drove in 32 runs despite hitting under the Mendoza line last year. The Nationals continue to have interest in Harris, who probably will not sign with a club until after the New Year.
10. Which member of the Nationals will have a breakout season?
Right-hander Collin Balester closed the 2010 season with a 2.57 ERA in 17 relief appearances, fanning 12 batters per nine innings. During a stretch of 12 appearances from Aug. 5 to Sept. 29, Balester threw 15 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
Baletser's confidence is so high right now that he believes he could become a major contributor for the Nationals next season. Washington has four candidates for the closer role. Balester declined to say if he would like to become a candidate. He simply wants to have a solid season.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.