Hitting likely will be key to Nationals' fortunes

Hitting likely will be key to Nationals' fortunes

VIERA, Fla. -- Last season, the Nationals were near the bottom of the National League in almost every offensive category. And general manager Mike Rizzo wasn't able to acquire the big bat he was looking for this past offseason.

As far as the regular position players go, it's virtually the same team the Nationals had last year. It's not a secret that the club needs better seasons from Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa.

If the Nats can improve offensively, they could find themselves challenging the Phillies for the NL East title.

"These guys on the Nationals are young and hungry," Werth said. "Maybe they can experience [the postseason] here sooner rather than later. It's why you play the game starting in Little League. It's every kid's dream. That's why you play, and that's where you want to be."

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This year, hitting coach Rick Eckstein expects the offense to be different than last. For starters, first baseman Adam LaRoche and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman are expected to be healthy for the full season. Zimmerman looked this spring like he was in midseason form, while LaRoche's left shoulder and foot problems appear to be things of the past.

Eckstein also credits manager Davey Johnson for bringing a positive attitude on the field.

"I see so many positives out of everyone. I think a lot of that goes toward Davey," Eckstein said. "I've had the great fortune to be around him for many years now. He has a knack for bringing [out] the best in everybody. These guys enjoy playing for Davey. It's been great. I love the fact that he goes up and talks to hitters. It's invaluable what he possesses."

If Spring Training were any indication, Desmond and Espinosa showed they will hold their own at the top of the lineup, while Werth has showed flashes of being the player that helped the Phillies win two pennants and one World Series.

However, Johnson said his biggest concern is the health of the team, and the offense has already been hit by the injury bug. Outfielders Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel are expected to start the season on the disabled list because of a strained right lat (back) muscle and left quad tightness, respectively.

This is where the bench comes in. Last year it was one of the worst in baseball. Johnson didn't like the fact that it was built on speed and defense. Now, there is a mix of power and speed. They added Mark DeRosa, Chad Tracy and Xavier Nady. The trio can hit a three-run homer off the bench, while Stephen Lombardozzi, Roger Bernadina and Brett Carroll provide the speed.

"You are always concerned about the health. I try to be close with the medical staff, the trainers," Johnson said. "A lot of times, I can tell if a guy is getting a little tired and I give them a day off. It's not so much they are physically tired, they are mentally tired, and I can generally read it. I can nip it in the bud. That's why a bench is important. You don't want to have a big slip in the talent level you put on the field.

"Obviously, your starters are the most talented guys because they can give you more innings, but you don't want to have a big drop off. So that's critical. It's 25 guys contributing. During Spring Training, you pick 25 guys and know they will be able to contribute in making it a successful year. ... We are going to put our best foot forward. I like the foot we are putting forward. If we don't play up to expectations, it's my fault."

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.