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Nationals Get Ready To Take the Field

Larkin Joins Front Office as Assistant

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 13 -- The door to Jim Bowden's office, the one adorned with a Louisville Slugger, was closed Sunday morning, and things were quiet on the fourth floor of Space Coast Stadium. As backup catcher Gary Bennett jogged up and down the left field line, nearly everyone in the Washington Nationals' front office tried to sneak in a final day away from the park before the grind of spring training begins Tuesday, when pitchers and catchers report.

But what happened in the ensuing hours was an indication of how Bowden -- and therefore, the Nationals -- could work as the team builds toward Washington's first season with baseball since 1971. Just after noon, the Nationals swapped outfield prospects with the Chicago White Sox, giving up 23-year-old Jerry Owens for Alex Escobar, 26, who was once the top prospect in the New York Mets' system. And three hours later, they hired former Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin -- whom Bowden had courted as a player -- to be a special assistant to the general manager, with a wide variety of scouting and developmental responsibilities.

Barry Larkin, who retired after a 19-year career with the Reds, will assist Nationals GM Jim Bowden. (Al Behrman -- AP)

_____Nats Face an Uphill Climb_____

1. Braves

Major offseason subtractions: RHPs Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright, OF J.D. Drew.

What's to like: With the arrival of closer Dan Kolb, John Smoltz fulfills his wish of going back to the starting rotation, giving the Braves -- in RHP Tim Hudson and Smoltz -- a pair of dominant starters.

What's not to like: OFs Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan both appear to be going straight from the scrap-heap into the Braves' starting lineup. CF Andruw Jones is looking more and more like a waste of talent every year.

2. Mets

Major offseason subtractions: LHP Al Leiter, OF Richard Hidalgo, reliever Mike Stanton.

What's to like: The arrival of CF Carlos Beltran and RHP Pedro Martinez give them instant credibility. Beltran, 3B David Wright and SS Jose Reyes form a solid, young core. The rotation is as deep as any in the league.

What's not to like: They are back to relying on aging Mike Piazza as their starting catcher. LF Cliff Floyd and RF Mike Cameron are both dead weight.

3. Marlins

Major offseason subtractions: Closer Armando Benitez, RHP Carl Pavano.

What's to like: 1B Carlos Delgado in the middle makes this arguably the division's deepest lineup. RHPs Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett are young potential aces.

What's not to like: Delgado's questionable defense and balky knees seem better suited for the AL. They lack a proven closer.

4. Phillies

Major offseason subtractions: RHPs Kevin Millwood and Felix Rodriguez, LHP Eric Milton.

What's to like: RHP Jon Lieber's return to the NL could make him one of the best below-the-radar signings of the winter. New manager Charlie Manuel will be a calming influence after the turmoil under Larry Bowa.

What's not to like: They lack a true number one (and maybe even a number two) starter. CF Kenny Lofton's best days are long behind him.

5. Nationals

Major offseason subtractions: 3B Tony Batista, OF Juan Rivera, SS Maicer Izturis.

What's to like: SS Cristian Guzman and 3B Vinny Castilla represent upgrades over the players they replace. Getting back 2B Jose Vidro and 1B Nick Johnson from injury make the Nats better already.

What's not to like: Nearly half their games are intradivisional. A rotation full of number three and number four starters is a scary deal in this division.

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"You never know what Jim's going to do," Nationals President Tony Tavares said by phone from Washington. "He's a calculated gambler. He's not going to walk up to a roulette wheel and put $1,000 on double-ought. But if he has an instinct, he'll roll the dice."

The trade is hardly a marquee deal, but it could foretell a frenetic pace for the spring. Bowden's reputation is that of a man who brazenly pursues and executes trades, a tendency for which he has been both praised and criticized. Thus, there's the distinct possibility that the group of Nationals who report to spring training might differ from the one that departs in early April.

"I've held off on some deals because I want to see the guys we have first, so that I can evaluate them," Bowden said. "But certainly, the more depth we have, the better off we are in terms of trading later. It gives us more options."

In some ways, Escobar is exactly the kind of player the Nationals will need to develop if such shuffling is to commence in earnest. Highly touted during his minor league days with the Mets, he was the key prospect in New York's trade for second baseman Roberto Alomar prior to the 2002 season. But he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that March and missed the entire season. Last year, he suffered a stress fracture and was claimed off waivers by the White Sox.

Should Escobar develop into a fourth or fifth outfielder, the Nationals could be in better position to pull off a trade for pitching. One baseball source reiterated yesterday that there has been significant interest in outfielder Terrmel Sledge, who may not win a starting job with Washington. Should Escobar -- or a slew of other hopefuls, ranging from veteran Jeffrey Hammonds to former first-round pick J.J. Davis -- develop into a capable backup, Sledge could be swapped for pitching.

Larkin will be one of those helping evaluate whether to make such deals. A 12-time all-star who won the 1995 National League MVP during a 19-year career with the Reds, Larkin thought about playing one more year. But in a meeting last week with Bowden and other front-office staff, his front-office aspirations were apparent.

"Based on every conversation I had with him the entire offseason, at no time did I have any real optimism that I thought he would come back and play," Bowden said. "But at the same time, I didn't want to move forward bringing him into the front office until I knew for sure. . . . In that conversation [last week], it was clear his playing days are over with. His enthusiasm was front-office related."

Bowden said Larkin, who will turn 41 in April, will help the organization's shortstops in spring training. He also will work with some of the players projected to be at the top of the order to improve their on-base percentage. He'll help scout potential first-round draft picks, be involved in evaluating major- and minor league trades, and speak to the younger players about developing as leaders. Bowden was the general manager in Cincinnati for 10 1/2 seasons, during which he developed tremendous respect for Larkin.

"We're blessed to have him," Bowden said.

Bowden and the entire baseball staff, including Manager Frank Robinson and the coaches, are scheduled to meet Monday morning at the stadium, a polished, 8,100-seat park in the Florida flatlands barely a mile off Interstate 95. Sunday, the facility looked and felt ready for the players' arrival.

Nearly all the references to the Expos have been removed, save for a lineup board that hangs in one concourse and a few pictures of former greats. Nearly every wall space -- the entrance to the locker room, the wives' lounge, the hallways, the elevator doors -- seems to have a giant version of one of the red, white and blue Nationals logos.

Though the franchise's move to Washington is taking place nearly 900 miles to the north, club and stadium employees said it will be felt in Florida. Jeff Weinhold, the manager of ticket operations for the stadium, said the team's spring training ticket sales were "way ahead" of last year. "I get 40 to 50 phone calls a day from fans in the Washington area," he said. "Last year, I might not get 40 to 50 calls in a week."

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