washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sports > Articles Inside Sports

Will Trade Winds Hit Nats?

Team Wants Hitting, but Not at Cost of Pitching

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page E01

VIERA, Fla., March 19 -- On one wall in Jim Bowden's office at Space Coast Stadium, scrawled on a large white greaseboard, are the lineups for every major league team. On another greaseboard is the Washington Nationals' organizational chart, player by player. The boards seem to scream at each other: Can we make a trade? Is there a fit?

"I can't predict," the Nationals' general manager said. "I'm not smart enough. But we know we have roster problems, and we know we have depth. Other teams like our outfielders. The phones don't stop ringing. We'll see."

Zach Day has struggled, but General Manager Jim Bowden expects him to stay in the Nationals' rotation. (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

_____Nats Tickets_____

The Washington Nationals announced yesterday that 1,600 tickets for the April 14 home opener will be available through an e-mail lottery. Fans may register at www.nationals.com; registration closes Tuesday at noon.

Four hundred fans will be chosen through the lottery and given the opportunity to purchase up to four seats for the opener.

The remainder of the Opening Day tickets may be purchased via phone (through Ticketmaster), at the RFK Stadium box office or online on March 26.

_____Phillies Basics_____
Phillies page
_____Reds Basics_____
Reds page

The time for talking about the early stages of spring training -- for sitting back, observing and evaluating -- seemed to pass in earnest this weekend. Two weeks from Saturday, the Nationals will break camp, head to Tampa for one last Grapefruit League game, then fly to Washington for the final exhibition, their debut at RFK Stadium. The following day, April 4, they will open their inaugural season in Philadelphia against the Phillies. Between now and then, the roster must be whittled from 38 players to 25.

Bowden, who famously made more than 100 trades during his 10 1/2-year tenure with the Cincinnati Reds, hasn't made a move since camp opened. And though he still believes the team needs another solid bat lower in the lineup, he said Saturday he is reluctant to part with any of the Nationals' apparent plethora of pitching. Bowden said he believes that Zach Day will hold onto the fifth spot in the starting rotation -- "It's never changed in my mind," he said -- and that fellow right-handers John Patterson and Jon Rauch will be badly needed in Washington this summer.

"No, no, no," he said when asked if the group of potential starters is deep enough to make a trade. "You don't get enough starting pitching. You're going to have injuries. Certainly, the fact that Rauch and Patterson are number six and seven on our depth chart right now is very important. They'll both be used. They'll both be needed."

Still, Bowden has interest in Cincinnati outfielder Wily Mo Peña, not to mention fellow Red Austin Kearns. But sources said the Reds' asking price of Day for Peña is too high. Two club sources said the Nationals won't part with lefty Mike Hinckley, the organization's top prospect who'll likely begin the season at Class AA Harrisburg. Other clubs -- the New York Mets and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, in particular -- are closely watching outfielder J.J. Davis and third baseman-outfielder Tony Blanco.

"That's what we'd have to deal from if we're going to deal," Manager Frank Robinson said. "We'd deal away pitching -- or some of the outfield."

This is where the decisions become difficult. Earlier in the week, the Nationals had an organizational meeting to try to determine which players seemed to be ahead of others. The talk went around the room.

"I'd say there was zero consensus," Bowden said.

Which is a good indication of how complex, and competitive, the next two weeks will be. The Nationals haven't determined whether they will break camp with 11 or 12 pitchers. But say, for example, they take just 11, particularly because there are more off days early in the season. That leaves 14 spots for position players. Twelve of the spots are basically locked up: Outfielders Endy Chavez, Jose Guillen, Terrmel Sledge and Brad Wilkerson; infielders Jamey Carroll, Vinny Castilla, Wil Cordero, Cristian Guzman, Nick Johnson and Jose Vidro; and catchers Brian Schneider and Gary Bennett.

That leaves, essentially, four players battling for two spots -- outfielders Davis, Ryan Church, Alex Escobar and, perhaps, pinch hitter Carlos Baerga. Escobar, though, has recently been hampered by a strained quadriceps. "He's going to be a disabled list candidate," Bowden said.

Blanco, hitting .316 and slugging .474, and Davis, hitting .500 and slugging .900, have been among the Nationals' most productive hitters. Each has murdered fastballs, and each has contractual status that might improve his chance of making the club.

Blanco was selected in December's Rule 5 draft off the roster of the Cincinnati Reds, which means the Nationals must keep him on their major league roster all season or offer him back to the Reds for $25,000. Davis, the eighth pick in the 1997 draft, was acquired in a November trade with Pittsburgh, and is out of options. Should the Nationals decide to send him to the minor leagues, other teams would have a chance to pick him up. Church, on the other hand, has options left.

"Those things have to factor in decisions," Bowden said.

Davis, who had a reputation for not working hard with the Pirates, said he felt a sense of urgency to make this team, and therefore overhauled his approach.

"I never used to pay attention to the game when I was on the bench," Davis said. "Once you pay attention, the game comes a little easier to you. . . . I feel I've worked harder and smarter than I ever have."

Not that Blanco and Davis have absolutely separated themselves. "No one's run away and you could say is a clear cut [favorite] above everybody else," Robinson said. Blanco, for instance, hasn't played well defensively, either at third or in left field. "Absolutely, that's a concern," Bowden said.

Over the next two weeks, the concerns will be sorted out -- sooner, rather than later. Bowden said he prefers to make the cut to 25 with four or five exhibition games remaining.

"That's always been a goal of mine," Bowden said. "I think it's better for the team. I think it's better for the players.

"It may be difficult to accomplish this year, but we're going to try to do it. There's still a lot of players to see. These next seven, eight games are the most important of the spring, and we've got some tough decisions to make."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company