In some ways, the Montreal Expos should have guessed their season would go nowhere, even before it began. Their third baseman, Tony Batista, felt ill during spring training.
"Chicken pox," said Tony Siegle, the team's assistant general manager. "Can you believe it? Chicken pox."
The 2004 Expos were hobbled from the start of the season:
3B Tony Batista, chicken pox
P Tony Armas Jr., shoulder
OF Carl Everett, shoulder
1B Nick Johnson, back
P Joey Eischen, elbow
CF Peter Bergeron, ribs
P John Patterson, groin
2B Jose Vidro, knee
1B Nick Johnson, fractured cheekbone
P Tomo Ohka, broken arm
So the Expos' final season in Montreal began -- and Batista's illness was just the start. Tony Armas Jr., a key starting pitcher, began the season on the disabled list, still not recovered from shoulder surgery in 2003. Outfielder Carl Everett injured his shoulder. First baseman Nick Johnson strained his back. Pitcher Joey Eischen had bone spurs in his elbow. Peter Bergeron, who had won the starting job in center field, strained his ribs. Starting pitcher John Patterson strained his groin. All that was before the end of April -- before second baseman Jose Vidro, perhaps the team's best player, had surgery on his right knee and sat out the final six weeks, before Johnson took a ball off his face and missed more time, before pitcher Tomo Ohka was struck by another ball and broke his arm.
Now, with pitchers and catchers reporting to the team's Viera, Fla., spring training facility in just two weeks, club officials hope there has been more change than just the move from Montreal. The Washington Nationals, as the team is now known, realize they need far better health if they're to rebound from last year's 67-95 debacle, a record that was the second-worst in the National League.
"You hate to make excuses," Siegle said. "But when we were at spring training, I turned to [Manager] Frank Robinson and said, 'You know, this is the best team we've had since we've been here.' And then all that happened."
Of the players returning from injuries, none is more important than Vidro, the three-time all-star who has a .304 career average. Plagued by pain in his right knee in the latter part of 2003, he was told that rest would be the best cure. But it didn't help. He had tendinitis in his patella, and it bothered him well into 2004. After 110 games of battling through it, he opted for surgery. The result was the first time in his six full major league seasons that he failed to hit .300 -- he finished at .294 -- and an offseason of rehabilitation.
In hopes of returning to form by Opening Day on April 4, Vidro plans on reporting early to spring training, arriving today in Viera. He had an examination early last month in Cincinnati.
"At that point, he hadn't started running," said Bruce Thomas, the Nationals' team physician. "But he had quite a good checkup. . . . We hope, by the time position players report [on Feb. 20] that he'll be full-speed."
Vidro will have a trainer working specifically with him each day he is in Viera. On some days, he'll have two.
"We need him in the lineup," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "I think it shows tremendous commitment on Jose's part that he's coming in early. It shows he cares, that he's excited, and that he wants to have the kind of season he knows -- and we know -- he can have."
In some ways, Armas's recovery is every bit as important, for the Nationals have little depth in the pitching staff. With Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza likely the top two starters, Armas must show that he is fully recovered from the surgery on his right labrum in May 2003 in order to capably back them up. He pitched last year -- going 2-4 with a 4.88 ERA in 16 starts -- but shut down after Sept. 12 to rest the shoulder.
"The first year after that kind of labrum surgery is always problematic," Thomas said. "His shoulder would tire. He would notice that he was just recovering in time for his next start."
Thomas examined Armas on Jan. 7, a full-day process in which his strength, flexibility and conditioning were evaluated. "We're ahead of where we'd hoped he'd be," Thomas said. Armas's performance in winter ball in his native Venezuela -- where he threw 25 innings and was "basically unhittable," according to Thomas -- leaves Thomas "very, very encouraged."
The news is encouraging on other injury fronts, Thomas and Bowden said. Johnson's fractured cheekbone is completely healed, and he saw a spine specialist in California who reported no abnormalities with his back. "Nick's considered 100 percent," Thomas said.
Ohka, who sat out 85 games after being hit by a line drive June 10 in Kansas City, made three starts after the injury. His agent, Jim Masteralexis, said Ohka has continued to rehabilitate the muscles and ligaments around the bone that was broken.
Starter Zach Day, who spent time on the disabled list because of shoulder tendinitis, fractured his right middle finger while trying to bunt on Aug. 1 at Florida. He missed the rest of the season. Thomas said Day is now "back to throwing off a mound. . . . Zach looks great. He's reduced his body fat. He feels like his command is good, that he has good movement on his ball. Of course, he hasn't faced live hitting, but it's really quite impressive so far."
It is, of course, just January. But some of the people around the club remember that, when healthy, this team went 83-79 in both 2002 and '03. Then, of course, players such as Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon and Orlando Cabrera helped out, and they have all since moved on. But for those who were part of the team last year -- guys like Siegle -- there's a lingering frustration from not knowing what might have happened had the injuries been kept to a minimum.
"Tony Armas, Tomo Ohka, Zach Day, those guys have the potential to break out and win 12-15 ballgames," Bowden said. "The potential. But in order for them to reach that potential, and for us to reach ours, we have to be healthy. We have to be."
Nationals Note: As expected, American Baseball Capital -- formerly the Virginia Baseball Club -- submitted an application to buy the Nationals, just beating yesterday's deadline. The group is led by former telecommunications executive William Collins.
That brings the total to at least six applicants who have paid the required $100,000 fee to enter the bidding for the team.