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Again, Leadoff Spot Is Concern

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 22 -- For the second year in a row, the Washington Nationals are conducting a search for a leadoff hitter in spring training. A year ago, the preferred candidate, Endy Chavez, failed to make the team, and the job went, by default, to Brad Wilkerson. This year, the preferred candidate is center fielder Brandon Watson -- and with Wilkerson gone, Plan B is far less clear.

"It's going to take care of itself," Manager Frank Robinson cautioned. The leadoff spot, he added, "is the least of my worries around here."

Robinson said Watson will bat leadoff anytime he is in the team's lineup this spring, once exhibition games begin March 1. When asked about his alternate plan, should Watson, 24, fail to seize the job, Robinson mentioned shortstop Cristian Guzman and outfielders Ryan Church and Marlon Byrd as possibilities.

"The guy would have to have a good idea of the strike zone [and] not be afraid of hitting with two strikes," Robinson said. "And also, he would have to take a lot of pitches. . . . A lot of hitters can't handle it."

Guzman in particular would seem to be an odd choice, given his career on-base percentage of .298, and that he saw only 3.19 pitches per plate appearance in 2005, second-lowest among players with at least 450 plate appearances.

"I might put him there this spring to see how he handles it," Robinson said.

Byrd, by comparison, saw 4.19 pitches per plate appearance and Church saw 3.79. First baseman Nick Johnson, whom Robinson said he would not consider for the leadoff job, has averaged 4.18 pitches for his career.

Situation at Second

The Nationals expect both of their all-star second basemen, Jose Vidro and Alfonso Soriano, to report to camp on time Thursday -- at which point a delicate dance will begin among the two players and team officials over how to resolve what is a potentially volatile issue.

Robinson said he expects to meet one-on-one with Soriano sometime Thursday morning, shortly after the player reports to camp. Although the team has said it wants Soriano to move to the outfield, Soriano has made it clear to the team that he has no intention of accepting such a move.

Robinson said he would withhold comment until he meets with Soriano.

Astacio to D.C.?

The Nationals are awaiting word on an offer they made to free agent pitcher Pedro Astacio for a one-year, minor league contract, which was first reported in Wednesday's Washington Times. Astacio, who is also weighing an offer from the San Diego Padres, split last season between the Padres and Texas Rangers. GM Jim Bowden said the team expected to hear an answer from Astacio within a couple of days.

Fick, Lawrence on Mend First baseman-catcher Robert Fick said an X-ray of his right elbow revealed bone chips. He received a cortisone shot yesterday and expects to be back on the field within a day or two. Right-hander Brian Lawrence said his sore right shoulder is better and expects to throw his scheduled bullpen session today.

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