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Bottom of Nats' Rotation Up for Grabs

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 20, 2006

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 19 -- A row of eight catchers crouched behind eight home plates at one end of the bullpen Sunday morning at the Washington Nationals' spring training facility, and -- 60 1/2 feet away -- a row of eight pitchers climbed eight mounds. An air horn sounded, eight baseballs flew from one end to the other, and so began the six-week process of choosing three-fifths of a starting rotation from amongst the collection of journeymen, minor league hopefuls, mended shoulders and bargain-bin finds that make up the Nationals' spring roster of pitchers.

Competition is inevitable and healthy in the Darwinian realm of professional sports, but for a baseball team to open camp -- as the Nationals did Sunday, with the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers -- with 60 percent of its starting rotation up for grabs is unusual and far from optimum.

"As a manager, coming to spring training and having to fill three spots on the starting rotation is not good, I don't care how you look at it," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "But we have to do that. And we'll get it done before we leave here."

Barring anything unforeseen, the Nationals will open their season April 3 at New York's Shea Stadium with ace right-hander Livan Hernandez on the mound, and right-hander John Patterson will follow in the second game on April 5. But who fills the roles of numbers three, four and five starters may not be decided until well into March, if not early April.

"After [Hernandez and Patterson], we're looking," Robinson said. "It's wide open. It's an open audition. Whoever steps up."

Although Robinson said a long-shot youngster such as 23-year-old left-hander Mike Hinckley could force his way into the rotation picture with a spectacular spring, the competition essentially is a scramble among five pitchers, all right-handers -- Tony Armas Jr., Ryan Drese, Brian Lawrence, Ramon Ortiz and Jon Rauch -- for three spots, with one of the odd men out likely headed to the bullpen as the long reliever.

Lawrence, 29, is the morning-line favorite to land the number three starter's job. In five seasons with the San Diego Padres, he twice earned the honor of pitching Opening Day, and he is only two years removed from a 15-win season. However, he fell to a 7-15 record in 2005, and the Padres dealt him to Washington for third baseman Vinny Castilla.

"It was a bad year," he said. "Five years in, and it's the worst year I've had. I definitely didn't pitch as bad as the record shows. There were several one- and two-run games that I lost. Guys were apologizing to me all year for not getting me any runs. It happens to somebody on every team every year, and last year it was me."

Ortiz, 32, also seeks to return to his former glory. He went 15-9 for the Anaheim Angels in 2002, plus 2-0 in the postseason as the Angels marched to the World Series title, then followed that up with a 16-13 season in 2003. But by the end of 2004, he was relegated to the Angels' bullpen, and at the end of the year he was shipped to Cincinnati, where he went 9-11 and gave up 34 homers, fourth most in the league.

Asked about his descent from front-line starter in Anaheim to rotation hopeful in Washington, Ortiz said: "It's very difficult. But I feel good. My confidence is good. If you have talent, you will have a job."

Rauch, 27, missed three months last season following shoulder surgery in June but returned to make six effective relief appearances in September and says he is 100 percent recovered from the injury. Still, injuries have limited him to 34 appearances (11 starts) since 2002.

"I haven't seen him enough as a starter to draw a conclusion," Robinson said. "But I've seen him as a reliever and he's been very effective."

Finally, both Drese, 29, and Armas, 27, are holdovers from last season (Armas was re-signed as a free agent) and both are coming off shoulder surgeries in September. However, Armas already has logged 27 innings during winter ball, and Drese said Sunday he is fully recovered.

"I'm trying to be smart and not try to rush things," Drese said. "But this is the best I've felt in five years."

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