Five who could surprise at spring training

Five who could surprise at spring training
February 9, 2012, 1:46 pm
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We've spent the majority of the offseason talking about guys who will have the biggest impact on the Nationals' fortunes in 2012 and beyond. That includes returning starters like Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. And that includes the high-profile additions GM Mike Rizzo has made so far: Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Brad Lidge.

It's probably safe to say all of the aforementioned players will have a significant impact -- positive or negative -- on the Nationals this season.

And then there are several lesser-publicized additions, guys who signed minor-league contracts or were acquired in low-profile deals, who could make an impression this spring and force their way into the Nationals' plans.

They may not have a huge impact on the club this season. Shoot, they may not make the Opening Day roster at all. But there always seems to be at least one player each spring who emerges out of nowhere and winds up heading north with the rest of the bunch. Think Laynce Nix in 2011. Or Jesse English (anyone remember him?) in 2010.

Here, then, are five semi-obscure names to keep an eye on at spring training. You never know, one of them could find himself wearing a curly W cap on Opening Day at Wrigley Field...

Position: 2BSS3B
Age: 27
2011 stats: .224.263.342 in 36 games with Rangers
How acquired: Signed as minor-league free agent
Blanco has some big-league experience (235 games over six seasons with the Royals, Cubs and Rangers) and he's enjoyed relatively recent success as the utility infielder for back-to-back AL championships clubs in Texas (he hit .277 with a .330 on-base percentage and 13 RBI in 68 games in 2010). Blanco can play all three infield positions and could make a case for himself to stick as a veteran backup to Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmerman.

Position: 2B3BSS
Age: 28
2011 stats: .281.356.428 in 91 games at Class AAA Tucson (Padres)
How acquired: Signed as minor-league free agent
Speaking of potential utility infielders ... Hoffpauir is another dark horse candidate for that role. He has less big-league experience than Blanco (only 21 total games with the Cardinals and Blue Jays from 2009-10) but he's got a solid offensive resume. Over eight minor-league seasons, Hoffpauir owns a .285 average, a sparkling .366 on-base percentage and a solid .428 slugging percentage. He's been stuck at Class AAA for the better part of five years now, perhaps because he's not especially gifted with the glove. But if the Nationals are looking for a little offensive punch off the bench, this guy might be up to the task.

Position: OF
Age: 26
2011 stats: .255.292.346 in 128 games with Dodgers and Pirates
How acquired: Signed as minor-league free agent
Paul spent all of 2011 in the majors, first in Los Angeles and then in Pittsburgh. His biggest contribution is speed; he stole 16 bases following only 262 plate appearances. His biggest drawback has been an inability to get on base; he sports a pathetic .288 OBP in 183 career big-league games. Paul, though, has had no trouble reaching safely in the minors (.360 OBP in 721 games). If he can figure out how to translate that success to the big show, the Nats might have something here.

Position: RHP
Age: 24
2011 stats: 2-0, 5.35 ERA in 36 games with Tigers
How acquired: From Detroit in trade for Collin Balester
The Nationals made the Balester-for-Perry swap in large part because of their respective minor-league options. Balester had none remaining, Perry has one. So he may be destined to open the year in Syracuse, no matter how well he pitches this spring. That said, Perry is an intriguing reliever to watch. A former first-round pick, he's got an electric fastball and a devastating slider that Detroit manager Jim Leyland said was one of the best he'd ever seen. Perry's issue has been consistency, leading to a ridiculously high walk total (21 in only 37 innings last season). If he can harness that golden arm, the Nationals won't hesitate to use him out of their bullpen this year ... whether that's on Opening Day or down the road.

Position: SS3B
Age: 23
2011 stats: .270.326.440, 16 HR in 136 games with Class AA Reading and Class AAA Lehigh Valley (Phillies)
How acquired: Claimed off waivers from Phillies
Rivero has got some pop in his bat, there's no question about that. The 6-foot-3 infielder produced 55 extra-base hits last season in the minors. But he's also a free swinger, striking out 112 times in 568 plate appearances, and he committed a whopping 27 errors at third base in 2011. The Nationals are taking a chance on a guy who has seven games of experience at Class AAA, but Rivero has the kind of bat worth taking a chance on.