VIERA, Fla. -- The Nationals and new manager Matt Williams begin spring training looking to solidify the fifth starter spot in their pitching rotation and find a solid backup catcher.
The first day of camp they found their backup catcher. The Nationals acquired switch-hitting catcher Jose Lobaton from the Tampa Bay Rays and two prospects for right-handed starter Nathan Karns.
The two prospects are outfielder Drew Vettleson and left-hander Felipe Rivero.
Lobaton was a much sought after commodity by general manager Mike Rizzo to back up starter Wilson Ramos.
Lobaton, a Acarigua, Venezuela native, played in a career-high 100 games for Tampa Bay last season, hitting .249 with 15 doubles, seven home runs and 32 RBIs. His on-base plus slugging percentage reached .714. He went 46-30 as the starting catcher with the Rays last season.
"Switch-hitting is certainly a bonus," Rizzo told reporters regarding Lobaton. "He had a terrific season from the left side of the plate and was a guy that we control at a reasonable cost, and his pitch framing is key."
The 26-year-old Karns went 0-1 with a 7.50 ERA in three starts for the Nationals, including his big-league debut. At Double-A, Karns was 10-6 with a 3.26 ERA in 23 starts and was the club's 2012 Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
"I'm still trying to swallow the whole pill right now," Karns told reporters at the spring training facility in Viera, Fla. "It'll probably hit me as I leave this complex, but I'm happy with all the time I've had here since 2009. Now, on to the next."
The other big question is whether or not left-hander Ross Detwiler is healthy enough to return to the fifth starter role.
The Nationals acquired veteran starter Doug Fister from the Tigers in the offseason to take over the fourth spot in the rotation. Detwiler is coming off a herniated disk in his back, which placed him on the 60-day disabled list last season. He was limited to only 13 starts in 2013, with a 2-7 record and a 4.04 ERA.
Detwiler got to camp Feb. 2, a good 10 days before the required report date. His offseason involved less travel and more conditioning and workouts all about baseball.
"This year, I just stayed at home the whole time and really focused on getting in a routine, getting all my workouts in, feeling a whole better," Detwiler told the Washington Post.
Detwiler still holds an important role with the Nationals, demonstrated by his shutdown of the Cardinals during the playoffs two seasons ago. The Nationals and Detwiler would like nothing better than for the Missouri native to return to that form and be consistent for an entire season. That is a sure way to lock down the fifth starting spot.
--RHP Luis Ayala, an original National, returned to his first club after several stops around the majors, most recently with the Orioles and the Braves. The 36-year-old Ayala is on a minor league contract, but is excited about the opportunity with the Nationals and feels at home. "I make a decision because I love this organization," Ayala told the Washington Post. "They gave me an opportunity to play in the big leagues. I was so happy to be part of the Nationals, especially at this time of my career."
--3B Ryan Zimmerman will get some time at first base this season, possibly the first step to a permanent transition for the veteran. Adam LaRoche is in the final season of his contract with the Nationals, and 2B Anthony Rendon could easily move to third base in the future or top prospect Matt Skole could play third base down the road. New manager Matt Williams asked Zimmerman to pick up a first-base glove in December with the intention of giving him spot duty at first base this season.
--RHP Ryan Madson may interest the Nationals to shore up their bullpen. The Washington Post reported the Nationals attended a public workout for the former Phillies and Reds reliever last week in Phoenix. Madson has apparently fully recovered from Tommy John surgery in early 2012. He saved 32 games for the Phillies in 2011.
--2B Danny Espinosa is expected to challenge for a roster spot after a tumultuous 2013 season (hand injury). The veteran Espinosa lost his starting job to rookie Anthony Rendon and it appears it is Rendon's job to lose. But Espinosa has big value as a switch-hitter and has top defensive tools. If he shows well early on, he could easily grab a utility spot for the Nationals or be offered to other teams in an early-season trade.
--OF Nate McLouth is expected to shore up Washington's bench against right-handed pitching. His signing was a big offseason step in providing the team with a veteran outfield bat. The 32-year-old McLouth signed a two-year deal after playing 146 games last season and hitting .258 with 12 homers and 36 RBIs for the Orioles.
--Many were concerned that LF Bryce Harper needed to tone down his aggressiveness in the outfield after injuring his knee early in the season. Harper recovered from offseason knee surgery and has worked in the gym to bulk up even more as he prepares for the 2014 campaign. The Nationals do not want to put a limit on Harper and believe that experience in the National League ballparks will help him get ready for how to time his jumps on defense this season, instead of making him apprehensive.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We felt that we were getting back a need for us this season, plus getting back what we feel was a huge-upside left-handed starter and an outfielder that replenishes our minor league prospects." -- Vice president/general manager Mike Rizzo, on the trade with the Rays that brought in C Jose Lobaton and two prospects for RHP Nathan Karns.
RHP Stephen Strasburg
LHP Gio Gonzalez