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No Offense, but Nationals See Need for More Runs

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 20 -- They couldn't get on base regularly. Too often, they stranded the runners that did reach. They ranked among the three worst teams in the National League in nearly every major offensive category, from batting average to slugging percentage to on-base percentage to runs batted in. Last season, when they played as the Montreal Expos, the Washington Nationals simply couldn't score. The biggest problem in that regard?

"Lack of offense," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson, tossing the ball to pitcher Jon Rauch during a drill, hit 27 homers last season but drove in just 67 runs. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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He was being facetious, but in some ways, there's no need to overthink the problem. As position players reported to the Nationals' spring training complex Sunday, preparing for the first full-club workout Tuesday, one of the main themes of the spring began to take shape. Robinson and his coaching staff must come up with a lineup that will produce more than the 3.92 runs per game that the team scored last season -- the second-worst average in the major leagues.

"We just didn't get it out of the people that we expected to get it out of," Robinson said Sunday. "We struggled. Any time you don't get the numbers out of the people you are expecting to get it out of, you're going to struggle. We certainly did that."

When spring training games begin March 2, Robinson will have a few more options with the lineup than he did in 2004. The Nationals signed third baseman Vinny Castilla and traded for right fielder Jose Guillen, who combined to drive in 235 runs last season.

But as Robinson goes over his potential lineups, those additions aren't likely to cause the most concern. Rather, the two players considered by club officials as the keys to the lineup aren't nearly as well-known by even serious baseball fans -- outfielder Endy Chavez and first baseman Nick Johnson.

Chavez, 27, was the Expos' regular center fielder for much of the 2004 season, and Robinson and others badly want him to develop into the leadoff hitter. But he won't earn that job unless he can improve his woeful on-base percentage, which was .318 last year, including an abysmal .291 from the top spot. In 533 plate appearances, he walked just 30 times.

"He has to enjoy creating havoc," hitting coach Tom McCraw said. "You got to keep that third baseman on his toes and nervous and keep the [opposing] manager nervous. When the pitcher starts hollering at you and calling you names, then you're doing a hell of a job. But you have to enjoy that. He hasn't gotten there yet."

If Chavez doesn't produce -- as Robinson puts it, "If he doesn't give me what I need" -- then the entire lineup will be affected. In all likelihood, outfielder-first baseman Brad Wilkerson would have to lead off. It's a role Wilkerson can handle capably; he hit 27 of his 32 homers from that spot in 2004. But he also drove in only 67 runs -- the lowest RBI total of any major leaguer who hit 25 or more homers. Robinson said he wouldn't hesitate to bat Wilkerson in the top spot if he has to, but it's not ideal. Bat him fifth, and who knows what might happen?

"To be honest with you, I think this ballclub needs somebody down the order that can drive in 100 runs," Wilkerson said. "I think we've signed a few guys that can potentially do that, and me going down there just adds to the number of guys that can drive in runs, so they're not pitching around certain guys. I think for this team to be successful, we need a couple guys to step up so I can move down in the order and hopefully drive in 100 runs."

There is a thought, too, that Johnson could be one of those guys. When McCraw looks down the roster, he said he would accept "normal, 8-10 percent improvement" from most of the members. Johnson is different.

"To me, Nick Johnson is the biggest piece," McCraw said. "I've got to get production out of Nick Johnson, which I think would free up the rest of the guys in the lineup. If he comes up and has a decent year -- I'm not talking a career year, just drive in some runs and be consistent -- you're talking about scoring another 60, 70 runs over the course of the season. That's a lot."

Johnson, who was limited to 73 games in 2004 because of a back problem and a broken cheekbone, has been in camp for more than a week, and said he feels ready to make the strides McCraw and Robinson want. A .255 career hitter, some observers have long thought Johnson is capable of much more.

"I'm confident in what I can do," he said. "I'm just anxious to be healthy for a year, be able to do it every day, to survive the grind."

If he's not, then the season could be another offensive grind for the Nationals.

"We have to see these guys mature," McCraw said. "I expect a much improved offensive club this year, a better lineup, but it'll only happen if guys have matured and learned."

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