Washington Nationals start 2013 with spring in their step

Anthony Rendon follows through on his home run swing for the Washington Nationals.
Top prospect Anthony Rendon hits a home run in the Washington Nationals’ spring training opener. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Everyone knows there isn’t too much emphasis on won-loss records at the end of spring training, and even box scores and individual stats don’t always tell the full story. A pitcher can have great numbers against a double-A line-up, and hitters can easily light up prospect pitching. Just about the only way to get anything out of the games is to watch individual performances and compare them to previous seasons and projections. That’s what has made the first three Washington Nationals games so fun to follow (or at least the two that we’ve been able to watch).

A lot has been written already about the pitching staff the Nats have compiled for their assault on the NL East this year. So far, the top three in the rotation have gone a combined seven innings, giving up three earned runs off five hits, walking two and striking out five. The talk of MLB for much of last year, Stephen Strasburg started sluggishly in his first inning, taking 31 pitches and throwing only five off-speed pitches before coming back and tossing a much better second inning. Last season’s Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez celebrated his negative drug test with a solid start against the Mets on Monday, striking out half the batters he faced. Most of last season, he was dogged by command issues with the fastball, and they were once again evident but the curveball was filthy, especially when striking out Ike Davis.

It’s hard to think that a rotation containing Strasburg, Zimmermann, Gonzalez, Dan Haren and Ross Detwiler might be overshadowed by the bullpen, but the likely lineup of Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and newly signed Rafael Soriano could do just that. Due to the extended spring training ahead of the World Baseball Classic, Storen is the only reliever to have made his debut so far, and he looked solid. Those wanting to get a better look at Nats starters over the next couple of weeks might as well watch team USA as Gonzalez and Detwiler head to Phoenix.

One of the things which made watching the Washington Nationals bearable while they were losing 90 games in the first seasons was knowing the farm system was being loaded with prospects. Now, we are reaping the rewards every day with Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who, by the way, looks in mid-season form already, but also with some of the young bats getting game time in Florida.

Warning: Much of the following comment is based on small sample sizes, but enough to give a fair indication of what’s to come.

The 2011 sixth overall pick Anthony Rendon is participating in his second Washington Nationals camp and has already shown his potential with a home run and a couple of hits, as well as some very tidy defensive work at third base. Some are saying it’s inevitable that Rendon will have to learn a new position with Ryan Zimmerman signed to a long contract, but given the shoulder issues of recent times, it’s entirely possible Zimmerman is at first by the time Rendon is ready to play every day.

A possible obstacle to that plan may be Chris Marrero, who was drafted in 2006 and saw action in the majors in 2011. Marrero has already looked sharp at the plate (stop shouting “small sample size”!!!) including a double on Monday night, which was absolutely crushed. They don’t call him the Large Animal for nothing. Another batting prospect with a double to his name already is third baseman Matt Skole, but being a year younger than Rendon, he will need to learn a new position. Corey Brown has also looked good so far and will make a worthy addition to a number of teams, but there’s no chance he’ll clear waivers to stay on the Washington Nationals roster for opening day.

The consensus seems to be the Washington Nationals will battle the Atlanta Braves this year but will end up playing deep into October. The first three days of the Florida spring have shown us that 2013 may well be the start of a golden era for baseball in the District, and that’s even before the big boys have come out to play.

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