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Washington Nationals

Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H8-9


Brian Schneider, C

Perhaps the perfect anchor for the Nationals' pitching staff, Schneider is the classic defense-first catcher who happens to have some offensive potential. He has excellent footwork and an exceptionally quick release when throwing to second. In 2003, he threw out 46.7 percent of would-be base stealers. Last year, it was 47.8 percent. Both totals led the majors. In 1,114 innings, he allowed all of four passed balls in 2004, and his career fielding percentage of .994 is the highest in franchise history for a catcher.

At 28, though, this is the year some in the organization feel Schneider -- in his second year as the unquestioned starter -- must develop offensively. Hitting eighth, ahead of the pitcher, will naturally keep his numbers down. "He had a nice little year last year," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "But he has to take that next step."

Gary Bennett, a .247 career hitter with five other teams, will serve as a veteran backup, something the franchise has lacked recently.

Nick Johnson, 1B

Maybe no National is under as much pressure to stay healthy and succeed than Johnson, the owner of a sweet left-handed swing who hasn't found consistency. That's in part because of his injury-plagued history, which includes six trips to the disabled list. Last year he sat out the first two months with a back strain and the last five weeks with a broken cheekbone. Some scouts believe Johnson has the goods to be a consistent .300 hitter, though he has never hit better than .284 during parts of four major league seasons. The Nationals spent much of spring training trying to overhaul his stance and swing. But if Johnson falters, Manager Frank Robinson will be under some pressure to sit him down. Brad Wilkerson led the team in starts at first base in 2004 with 78, and he could easily return to the infield. Veteran Wil Cordero will get spot duty at first.

Jose Vidro, 2B

There was no more important question about the Nationals' spring than: Will Jose Vidro be healthy? No, he didn't get through the spring unscathed; a hyperextended elbow cost him a week. But his surgically repaired right knee, the one that bothered him all of 2004, held up just fine.

"He's the backbone of this organization," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. Vidro confirmed that by signing a four-year, $30 million deal midway through last season. At that price, he might be a steal. His averages from 1999-2003: .316, 86 runs scored, more than 75 RBI and nearly 42 doubles. More importantly, he sets a tone. His teammates had to see him limping around and icing his knee last season to realize there was anything wrong with him. "He'll play on one leg, one arm, whatever," Manager Frank Robinson said.

On another team, Vidro might be the perfect No. 2 hitter. In this lineup, he must hit third -- and be healthy. Jamey Carroll provides a solid backup.

Cristian Guzman, SS

The Nationals went into the offseason minus one of the anchors of the previous six seasons, shortstop Orlando Cabrera, traded last July. The team couldn't afford the marquee free agent shortstops -- Cabrera, Edgar Renteria or Nomar Garciaparra. So they signed Guzman, the 27-year-old with the reputation for his exceptional gifts and, occasionally, startling lapses in effort.

In his first spring training with a club other than the Minnesota Twins, though, Guzman played outstanding baseball, both defensively and offensively. Though he has never driven in even 60 runs in a season, he consistently hit the ball hard in exhibition games. He has used his quick first step to get out of the batter's box swiftly -- something Endy Chavez should watch closely.

Guzman hasn't made more than 12 errors since 2001. Jamey Carroll is the backup should Guzman need a day off. But if Guzman were injured long-term, the team would make a trade.

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