FIVE TO WATCH
The star prospect is not with the team to start the season, but his every at-bat at Triple-A Syracuse will come under a microscope. Harper will spend his time there adjusting to center field defensively. It's hard to believe we won't see him by about July 1. It could be as soon as May 1.
His OPS for four years with the Phillies was .861 or better. His final season there it was .921. But Werth's mega-contract with Washington led to disappointing results: .232 batting average, .330 on-base percentage, .718 OPS. That won't cut it this time, though he showed strides with his swing in spring training.
The free agent market tanked on Jackson, who didn't want to sign with a noncontender. So he settled for the classic "pillow" contract -- a one-year, $11 million deal. Will it pay off? He can give the Nats a 200-inning season, but if Jackson can lower his walk total, too, he becomes a dangerous No. 4 starter.
He can push the Nats' bullpen from very good to the league's best with a frightening power arm. He had 14 wild pitches last season. But with 12 strikeouts to two walks this spring and one earned run allowed in 12 innings, Rodriguez appears ready to break out.
Washington's shortstop has one more chance to prove he is an everyday major league player. He will lead off the batting order to start the season. But he needs to improve on his career .304 on-base percentage. Desmond has tremendous range in the field and cut his errors from 34 in 2010 to 23 last season.
The rotation has a completely different look in 2012. Jordan Zimmermann, quietly coming off a top-shelf season, is the sole returning member. Stephen Strasburg, even on an innings limit, gives Washington a legitimate ace. The trade with Oakland for Gio Gonzalez brought in a left-hander with one of the sport's best curveballs. Washington signed innings-eater Edwin Jackson as a free agent. Ross Detwiler pitched so well in spring training that the Nats demoted John Lannan, who had a 3.70 ERA last year. Chien-Ming Wang is still recovery from a serious left hamstring strain. In the bullpen, Drew Storen (right elbow) will start on the disabled list but is an established closer. Tyler Clippard was an All-Star setup man in 2011, and power-armed Henry Rodriguez had a brilliant spring. Brad Lidge, four years removed from a perfect season as Philadelphia's closer, can handle multiple roles. Tom Gorzelanny will pitch in long relief.
Injuries in spring training have left a patchwork offense for now. Michael Morse (strained right lat muscle) and Rick Ankiel (quadriceps strain) will begin the year on the disabled list, but neither injury is expected to be a long-term issue. Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche will carry the freight in the middle of the order while Morse recovers. Werth, especially, needs to rebound from his disappointing 2011 (.232 batting average). The Nats start the year with Ian Desmond at the top of the order and Danny Espinosa batting second. Desmond has always struggled to get on base. Espinosa's strikeout rate is high. Washington needs those two to figure it out or its offensive ceiling will remain limited. Expect catcher Wilson Ramos to build on his 15-homer rookie campaign. When Morse returns, he will try to show his 31-homer season was no fluke. LaRoche battled a foot injury this spring but appears recovered from his season-ending shoulder surgery.
This is a work-in-progress early as injuries have moved expected role players like Mark DeRosa into the starting lineup. That could be for a few games or for a month. The versatile DeRosa is the kind of player manager Davey Johnson loves. Roger Bernadina isn't a long-term option in center field, but he will get his chance with Ankiel hurt. It might be his last. Xavier Nady, a veteran bat, wasn't even with the club three weeks ago but made the team after signing a minor league contract midway through camp. Johnson has praised Brett Carroll's defense as a reserve outfielder. And the team will try to get promising utility man Steve Lombardozzi as many at-bats as possible in as many defensive positions as it can, including outfield, where he hasn't played since middle school. Chad Tracy is the backup first baseman, and Jesus Flores, still progressing from that catastrophic shoulder injury in 2009, is the backup catcher.