Rich Tucker

At third, Washington has its true superstar. Ryan Zimmerman was the first player the team drafted after it moved, and he recently signed a contract extension that could allow him to play out his career in D.C. However, he’ll need to remain healthy. He played almost every game in 2009, missed 20 in 2010 and 60 last season. If he goes down, even for a few weeks, the team could go down with him.

In the outfield, Washington is counting on Michael Morse to be its cleanup hitter and big run producer. He certainly produced last year, to the tune of a .303 average and 31 homers. He also filled in at first base after LaRoche went down, so you know he’s a solid team player. Morse has been hurting this spring, though, and may not be ready to start the season. Like Zimmerman, he’s not a player the Nats can do without for long if they aim to make a playoff run.

In center look for journeyman Rick Ankiel to start the season. He’s a former pitcher known for having a good arm and solid glove, but he doesn’t chip much in at the plate. And he’s not expected to. He’s just holding the spot until super prospect Bryce Harper is ready to take over. Will that be in May, June or later? Nobody knows. Will the 20-year-old Harper, who was playing in a college league two years ago, be ready to handle the big leagues? Again, nobody knows. If he’s not, it could be a long year in center.

The right fielder is Jayson Werth, signed by the Nats last winter to a mega-bucks contract. Once he stopped playing home games at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park Werth’s batting average plunged. He hit .296 in Philly in 2010, .232 in Washington last year. Some are expecting Werth to rebound, based partly on the fact that he recently knocked a ball literally out of the park in a spring training game. But the fact is: he isn’t going back to Philadelphia, where the rinky-dink park transforms hits that would be pop outs in most stadiums into home runs.

The Nats’ strength is their pitching, and this alone could keep them in the hunt. But there are always question marks. Stephen Strasburg is the real deal and will start on Opening Day. But he’s coming off surgery in 2010 and will only pitch 160 innings this season. So his season could end just as the playoff hunt picks up.

Jordan Zimmermann is a solid second starter, but he had similar surgery in 2009. Assuming he continues to improve, the Nats could excel, especially since they’ve added proven starters Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez. Still, pitchers get hurt over the long season, so it’s too soon to pop the champagne corks.

Bottom line: Let’s set aside the playoff talk this season. Just as with the government’s annual promises to reduce spending, it’s wait ’til next year one more time in D.C.

Rich Tucker

Rich Tucker is a communications professional and a columnist for