VIERA, Fla. -- Nationals pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training on Tuesday, and there is optimism at Space Coast Stadium because general manager Mike Rizzo did everything he could this offseason to make sure the Nats don't have another fifth-place finish in the National League East.
One of his goals was to improve the team's defense, which should happen with the additions of Adam LaRoche at first base and Jayson Werth in right field.
The Nats also needed players who accept their role off the bench, so Rizzo added veterans Jerry Hairston Jr., Alex Cora and Rick Ankiel.
Although Rizzo didn't acquire a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, he believes Washington's starting staff will get better, because Jordan Zimmermann and Jason Marquis are healthy and John Lannan and Yunesky Maya will be more consistent on the mound.
"I'm excited to see how we will roll out," reliever Drew Storen said. "I think we made the right changes. We not only brought in guys with good talent, but we have guys with the right attitude and who want to win. They just don't want to show up and put their gloves out there. I think that is the biggest thing."
Nationals position players are not required to report until Sunday, but Werth, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shortstop Ian Desmond, outfielder Nyjer Morgan and second baseman Danny Espinosa are already in camp, and they were seen taking batting practice late Monday morning. To Desmond, it is a sign that the team is going in the right direction.
"I think the moves that they made during the offseason, everyone is excited for the season to get started," Desmond said. "I was in camp last Wednesday and more than half of our rotation was here. We had a bunch of bullpen guys. All the young guys are here. That's how it goes. It's good to see that the organization is moving in the right direction, the players are feeding off of it, and everyone is excited to be here and get started."
Manager Jim Riggleman spent most of Tuesday at the team's organizational meetings with Rizzo and his staff, but found time to talk to the media for about 20 minutes. Although he is in the last year of his contract, Riggleman doesn't feel he is in a must-win situation.
"I haven't thought about anything in particular on me or anyone else," Riggleman said. "We come in as a large group and we'll try to whittle that down to become a team, and that team has to go out and win ballgames."
Asked to compare the current Spring Training roster to last year's team, Riggleman believes last year's team had far more question marks before Opening Day.
"I think that last year we had some questions in Spring Training about our bullpen, which turned out to answer themselves very well. So, I feel better this spring," Riggleman said. "I feel a little better about our starting rotation. I think some good things can come out of our rotation. We had some setbacks with Stephen [Strasburg getting hurt]. With that being said, I think with Zimmermann, Lannan, Marquis and Livan [Hernandez] being back, we feel we have a lot of good names to draw from there. Our rotation has a little more depth. Overall, I feel better about our pitching.
"In 2009 and '10, it was hard to tell exactly how good our pitchers were, or maybe how bad they were, because our defense was not really up to the standards needed to give our pitchers a full opportunity to do what they can do.
"If what we think is going to happen -- we play better defense -- I think we will have a better pitching staff. Offensively, I think we are a fairly similar club that we were last year. That's OK. We weren't too bad offensively. We do feel the top of the lineup has to get on base a little more."
Of the position players, Morgan has a lot to prove in camp. Morgan will be working on getting on base more often, hitting left-handed pitching and stealing bases without getting caught so often. In 2010, Morgan had the worst season of his career, hitting .253 with an on-base percentage of .319. He also was 27-for-135 (.200) against lefties and was caught stealing 17 times in 51 attempts, while hitting mostly from the leadoff spot.
If he doesn't show improvement during Spring Training, Morgan may find himself platooning with Hairston Jr. Even worse, he could lose his starting job altogether if Ankiel has a better spring.
Riggleman said that he doesn't want to think about other alternatives for the leadoff spot. He is concentrating on Morgan being his leadoff hitter all season.
"The thing about Nyjer is, he is a .283 career hitter. That's pretty good baseball," Riggleman said. "He did not have the year in 2010 that was up to his standards, but I think he is going to do fine. He is going to put his work in with [hitting coach] Rick Eckstein. I think he is going to move more toward what he did for us in '09. That year, he was electrifying."
An improved Morgan means the Nationals will be better than last year.
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.