Few Spots Open for Numerous Relievers

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 22, 2006

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 21 -- The Washington Nationals have more than 30 pitchers at their spring training camp, the majority of them relievers. However, as Manager Frank Robinson acknowledged Tuesday, there may only be one spot available in a bullpen that ranks as one of the Nationals' biggest strengths.

"There are a lot of guys here," Robinson said. "But we're only going to take six, maybe seven" relievers.

Robinson has always preferred an 11-man pitching staff, but pitching coach Randy St. Claire is lobbying him for a 12-man staff and Robinson said he might relent. It could depend upon the makeup of the team's starting rotation -- where as many as three spots are available -- and how confident Robinson is in its ability to eat innings and thus reduce the need for an extra bullpen arm.

In any case, three spots are already filled by closer Chad Cordero and right-handed setup men Luis Ayala and Gary Majewski, and Robinson will almost certainly take at least one of his veteran left-handers, Joey Eischen or Mike Stanton, or perhaps both of them.

Neither of the left-handers is assured of a spot, Robinson said. "But I'd prefer to have at least two of them."

Another spot, the long-relief job, is expected to be filled by one of the quintet of pitchers -- Brian Lawrence, Ramon Ortiz, Jon Rauch, Tony Armas Jr. and Ryan Drese -- currently vying for three starting rotation jobs.

That leaves perhaps only one bullpen spot, with a half-dozen solid candidates, including veteran signees Felix Rodriguez, Kevin Gryboski and Valerio De Los Santos, and 2005 holdovers Travis Hughes, Jason Bergmann and Joe Horgan.

Rodriguez, who signed a one-year, $600,000 deal with the Nationals earlier this month, is the only pitcher who has yet to report to camp. He has been held up in his native Dominican Republic because of problems securing a visa, but team officials expect him on Thursday.

Questions at Catcher

The issue of how to fill the Nationals' backup catcher job may have revealed an acute difference of opinion between Robinson and General Manager Jim Bowden.

Last week, Bowden said he envisioned the team eschewing a traditional backup catcher and using the combination of Robert Fick and Matt LeCroy -- both of whom are more comfortable as first basemen and have limited catching experience -- to share the backup duties behind starter Brian Schneider.

On Tuesday, when Robinson was asked his thoughts on that possibility, he said, "From what I read, that's the perfect scenario. . . . I would think that would be something coming from the manager, wouldn't it? I'm not going to comment and second-guess the general manager."

Should Robinson insist upon a more traditional backup, there are no shortage of candidates in camp, including veterans Mike DiFelice, Alberto Castillo and Wiki Gonzalez.

Looking to Run

Robinson said he is stressing the importance of base-stealing this spring, after the Nationals finished the 2005 season tied for second-worst in the majors with 45 stolen bases, and dead last with a 50 percent success rate.

"We have to make [the players] more aggressive and to want to steal a base in the right situation," he said. "I want people to want to run. . . . That's what good base stealers do. They dare you. They believe in their ability to steal a base. They take chances. We didn't do that last year at all. We were more of a base-to-base team. That's a tough way to win on a daily basis. You have to create some things."

Injury Update Fick was held out of most drills Tuesday because of soreness in his right (throwing) elbow, and he was scheduled to have X-rays Tuesday afternoon. Lawrence, who cut short a bullpen session Monday due to shoulder soreness, played catch on Tuesday and is expected to throw another bullpen session on Thursday.

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