Pitchers and catchers have already reported in West Palm Beach, and now with all position players having followed, it's clear that it is now baseball season. Spring training is typically a time for players to get back into the swing of things, pun intended, before the regular season starts. Pitchers ramp up and prepare their arms for the regular season while hitters get their timing back. For the Nationals however, spring training will be quite more important.
With the roster still not being fully set, the Nationals may very well use the next month to finalize who they want in their starting lineup come opening day. The starting rotation and bullpen, barring any injuries, is pretty much set. Keibert Ruiz will be the primary backstop for the Nationals, with CJ Abrams and Luis Garcia playing up the middle most days. After that, nothing is truly gauranteed. Joey Meneses will find himself in the mix somewhere, but the question of where remains. There are projections for who will occupy the other positions, but none of them are set in stone. With that being said, here's three position battles to look out for throughout spring training.
1. Third Base
The Nationals signed Jeimer Candelario to a one year deal this offseason with the hope he can return to his 2021 form. He's projected to be the starting third baseman for the Nationals, but I don't believe that role is fully guaranteed for him. Washington has more than one third baseman on their roster heading into spring training, and while Candelario comes in as the most likely opening day starter, any of them can take that spot with a strong March. Candelario's main competition will come from Carter Kieboom, a player the Nationals' faithful is very familiar with. The Nationals selected Kieboom in the first round back in 2016, and Carter had high expectations placed on him from the organization and the fans. He has shown enough flashes to keep himself in the Washington organization, but has not yet been able to claim the everyday role that Nats fans thought would be his after Anthony Rendon left. Between a collection of injures and lackluster performances both offensively and defensively, Kieboom would need quite the spring training to claim the everyday role. Jake Alu is another corner infielder who has caught the attention of some Nats fans, as he put up a .871 OPS last season in the minor leagues. Alu doesn't have any major league experience, so like Kieboom, he would need quite the phenomenal camp to make the opening day roster. While the expectation is Candelario will be the Nationals opening day third baseman, it should be noted that Carter Kieboom and Jake Alu are two names to keep an eye on this spring training. If Candelario can't find his 2021 stroke and either one of those two guys outperform expectations, it might not come as much of a shock if either of them find themselves with a chance in the show.
2. The Outfield
As it currently stands, the Nationals projected outfield includes Lane Thomas, Victor Robles, and Corey Dickerson from right to left, respectively. That isn't necessarily a jaw-dropping outfield, especially on the offensive side of the game. All Nationals fans know the story of the former top prospect Victor Robles. Once ranked the fourth prospect in baseball, Robles was never able to deliver the offensive hype he once had. Lane Thomas has been a serviceable starter for the Nationals in the last year-plus, but his ceiling seems to be a fourth outfielder. That leaves Corey Dickerson, who will just be a filler outfielder this year. While this is the projected starting outfield for the Nats, the door should be open throughout spring training for one or more players to earn a spot in the opening day lineup. Those main candidates would be Stone Garrett and Alex Call. Stone Garrett was a sneaky good addition by Mike Rizzo, with a ton of potential upside. Despite only 84 plate appearances last year, Garrett finished with a .848 OPS and 131 wRC+. If he has an impressive spring, expect him to potentially take one of the other three guy's spots in the opening day outfield. The Nationals saw a glimpse of Alex Call last season, where he hit to the tune of a .748 OPS. Similar to Garrett, a strong enough spring could allow Call to find himself with a more prominent role when the season starts. Stone Garrett and Alex Call are two names Nats fans should keep an eye on throughout spring training with the chance they impress enough to make the opening day starting outfield.
The bulk of the Nationals bullpen appears to be set, but who has which roles remains to be seen. The Nats have a mix of guys who have closing experience, but who will get the job as closer for the games the Nats are able to win this season? Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan split the role last year, but with the former recovering from Tommy John Surgery, expect Finnegan to be the main candidate fighting for the role. Finnegan has turned into a consistent reliever for Washington, but might not be the closer of the future. Hunter Harvey and Mason Thompson are two names to keep an eye on as well. Harvey threw to a 2.52 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 39.1 innings last season, and should be returning to a high leverage role for the Nats. On the other hand, Mason Thompson might just be the most talented reliever the Nationals have at this level. His potential is off the charts and can easily turn into the closer of the future. Unfortunately, the Nationals might be misusing him and not letting him reach that max potential. Thompson is a reliever that will turn heads this spring and gain a lot of attention, so be on the lookout for each of his appearances. Any of these four guys can become the Nationals closer heading into opening day. The possibility of a closing committee is always there, and the Nationals may very well opt to use one with these four on the roster.
Every spring training is great, as it always means it truly is time for baseball again. However, Nationals fans have a little extra to look forward to. A new flush of prospects and some fun position battles should make for an interesting spring training, foreshadowing what will be a hectic 2023 regular season.