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Nationals Get Ready To Take the Field

"There's no question about it: This is better," said Tony Siegle, the team's assistant general manager who held the same position the previous three years in Montreal. "Spring training is the first step toward getting on with your season. You're supposed to be excited. Last year, knowing we were going back to Montreal, knowing that there weren't going to be any fans there, knowing there wasn't going to be any relief from the apathy, it wasn't any fun. Camp really got old fast.

"But this year, my goodness. Just listening to the players, you can tell it's different."

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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On Sunday, only a couple of players reported to the complex, which includes six full fields and two partial fields. But over the past two weeks, there have been signs that the team members are more excited about this season than the past few.

Second baseman Jose Vidro arrived Feb. 1 and has been rehabilitating his injured right knee ever since, though he took Sunday off. First baseman Nick Johnson, infielder Henry Mateo, catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder-first baseman Brad Wilkerson all came in early.

"I think that's a pretty good indication of how excited these guys are," Bowden said.

Excited, whether they'll be here by the end of the spring or not.

"One thing you have to understand about Jim: Whatever move he's making, it's truly part of a plan," Tavares said. "Some guys say, 'I like a player. I want him. I'll figure it out later.' Everything that Jim does has some strategic purpose."

Nationals Notes: The team's radio deal should finally be completed this week, but there are still multiple candidates. Jim Farley, the vice president of news and programming for WTOP, confirmed late last week that the station's parent company, Bonneville International Corp., has talked to the Nationals about a potential deal. Should Bonneville get the contract, the games wouldn't be broadcast on WTOP, Farley said, but rather on some combination of Bonneville's other stations, which include WWZZ (104.1 FM) and WFED (1050 AM). Infinity Broadcasting, which would likely broadcast the games on WJFK (106.7 FM), could still very well land the deal, a source said Sunday. The source also added that Clear Channel Communications, with whom a deal had fallen apart last month, had also had contact with the Nationals again. Clear Channel owns all-sports WTEM (980 AM). . . .

To make room for Escobar on the 40-man roster, the team designated infielder Alejandro Machado for assignment.

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