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Five things to look for as the Washington Nationals hit spring training

Pitchers and catchers have already reported and the rest of the club is soon to follow. The sun is beginning to peak up above the palm trees and the statue of Casey at the Bat is ready to set his sights on a new spring. It’s spring training time in Vierra, and after a rocky football and basketball season, Washingtonians couldn’t be more enthused.

While for the next few weeks all we will be reading about are pitchers and catchers, soon spring training will be in full bloom and there will be story lines to follow. Here are my top five things to look for at Vierra this spring.

5. How does Riggleman handle the top spot? 

The last time Jim Riggleman entered spring training as a head coach the year was 1999 and he had just helped the Cubs win 90 games and reach the playoffs for the first time since Don Zimmer had led them to the NLCS in 1989. It was a disappointing return to October as the Cubs got swept in the divisional series 3-0 by the Braves. It was a team that had been spurred by two unexpected stars, Sammy Sosa who had just broken Roger Marris’s home run mark by smacking 66 bombs, and a 21-year-old phenom fireballer named Kerry Wood. Riggleman would only lead the Cubs to a 67-95 record that year before getting fired. Later many would question Riggleman’s handling of the team, as Woods arm fell off due to overuse and Sosa became part of the steroid scandal that rocked baseball.

4. Will we see the return of Matt Chico?

Chico faired well, but not great, in his rookie season for the Nationals in 2007. At 24, Chico posted a 7-9 record with a 4.63 ERA in 31 games started. The metrics say Chico may have been the benefit of good defense as he posted an FIP of 5.56. Chico, however, is a junk ball pitcher who doesn’t fit the norm and if he could return to his 2007 form he could be a good back-of-the-rotation starter for the Nationals, and a filler until Detwiler, Zimmermann, and Strasburg are ready to rock the big league show.

3. The ridiculousness of a closer competition in spring training

In the spring, at least for the first three-quarters of it, very little is based on competition against the opposing teams. Hitters are trying to find their timing, pitchers are working on hitting their spots, umpires and broadcasters are shaking off the rust, and managers are just trying to organize a game that will have 10+ substitutions and no one playing over three innings. In fact, one time when I was down in Florida with Pappa Yodes, we saw Tom Glavine throw 12 straight fastballs to the same location. Sure enough, he got rocked, but all he was doing was getting work on hitting that location for when the games mattered.

Among other things that happens in spring training is the closer will pitch in the 4th, 5th, or 6th inning. This is usually so they can pitch against hitters who will be playing above AA ball in 2010, and because the teams stars usually are allowed to finish their day first. Either way, if the Nationals are looking at Capps, Bruney, and Storen at the closer position, they will be pitching against inferior talent and not in the ninth inning. So really, what will the numbers tell us?

2. The coverage of the WaPo’s new beat writer

As Chico Harlan has moved on to “greener pastures,” the Post has finally announced his replacement as Adam Kilgore. Kilgore, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former WaPo intern has spend the last seven years writing for the Boston Globe covering the Red Sox and the Patriots. It should be interesting to see how he takes over the beat after Nationals bloggers and fans had a less than perfect relationship with Chico. While he had a certain “character,” we should remember Chico as a great wordsmith and someone who helped carry the beat to his own drum.

1. Steven Strasburg madness

Ok, ok, I know people are going to be sick come April about all the press coverage Strasburg will be getting down in Vierra. Yes, no matter how well he pitches he wont likely make the team and yes it will only lead to fanaticism and band waggoning. I get it. But from a fan’s point of view I’m rather excited to see him pitch against Major League talent for the very first time. Sure, they will be meaningless at bats and the batters may still not have their timing, but to see a guy who is our supposed savior going up against the cream of the crop for the first time, oh that’s very exciting.

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