Rookie Watson Auditions for Leadoff Role

Brandon Watson, signing autographs, hit .355 at Class AAA New Orleans before being called up late last season.
Brandon Watson, signing autographs, hit .355 at Class AAA New Orleans before being called up late last season. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

KISSIMMEE, Fla., March 10 -- It's nothing for Brandon Watson, he of just 40 major league at-bats, to walk into a major league clubhouse or face major league pitching. Frank Robinson, a Hall of Famer, might give him tips at the batting cage before a spring training game, as he did Friday morning here. Jose Vidro, a three-time all-star, might hit right behind him. He might be expected to lead off for the Washington Nationals as a rookie. None of it is a big deal.

"That stuff doesn't bother me," Watson said. "With what I've seen, I can't be star-struck, because I know that whoever the people are around you, they're just regular people."

Watson can say that because when he was growing up in Los Angeles, he used to hang with the Jackson 5. He knew Magic Johnson. Eric Davis, the former outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, is his godfather. From Tony Danza to Penny Hardaway, from dancers to boxers, Watson grew up in the shadow of celebrity, and it has shaped who he is as he tries to seize what could be the key to the Nationals' lineup -- the leadoff spot. He is 24, but, as he said, "I've had someone say, 'This is my good friend Eddie Murphy,' and just been like, 'Oh, okay.' "

"He saw everybody, and he knew everybody I knew," said Watson's father, Sam, a concert and fight promoter who is plugged into Hollywood's celebrity scene. "He was around all of it, all kinds of celebrities -- backstage and all that -- and it really doesn't bother him. He doesn't really care, because to him, they're his friends. And that means that he can be comfortable in just about any situation."

The situation the Nationals care most about is the role of leading off and playing center field. If Alfonso Soriano eventually accepts a move to left field from his regular second base -- an issue that looms over this entire camp, and is far from resolved -- the rest of the lineup falls into place rather nicely. That is, if the fleet-footed Watson can show that his .355 average last year at Class AAA New Orleans translates into the ability to play in the majors.

"What we need from him is what you need from a leadoff hitter," Robinson said. "Each time he goes up to home plate, understand the situation, and then determine what he needs to do to help the ballclub."

That includes working the count. That includes bunting for a base hit, something he did in his first at-bat in Friday's 8-6 loss to the Houston Astros. That includes playing good defense, drawing walks, stealing the occasional base, shooting the ball the opposite way.

But wait. Doesn't this sound familiar? Consider more analysis from Robinson: "He has to, each at-bat, understand the situation, and then that will dictate what you should do that at-bat."

Except Robinson didn't say that this spring about Watson. He said it last spring about Endy Chavez, the speedy center fielder who was given every opportunity to win the leadoff job. Chavez, though, frittered it away. He didn't take pitches, didn't draw walks. He was sent to the minors before the season began, and in May was traded to Philadelphia.

"They're two totally different players," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "Endy never was able to make adjustments with the bat at any level. Brandon Watson, last year in Triple A, hit the ball the other way, bunted, got on base, scored runs, did things that he was supposed to do."

That performance got Watson called up to the Nationals last August, and it couldn't have gone better. He doubled in his first at-bat, later hit a home run the opposite way, and finished with two runs scored in a win at Houston when the Nationals were still in the pennant race. But from that point on, he forgot what got him there.

"He started pulling everything and trying to do too much," Bowden said. "His approach to hitting and approach to the game wasn't the same." He was sent back to the minors 11 days later. But he learned. "Now, this spring, he's brought the mental approach we saw in the minors," Bowden said.

Last spring, Robinson said, Watson would listen to everything the staff told him about leading off, about the approach they deemed necessary. Then he'd go out and, say, swing at the first pitch anyway.

"It's not that he wasn't trying to do it," Robinson said. "He didn't do it -- not enough, anyway. He seems to grasp it a little better and is able to go out and execute a little better this spring. I'm really pleased about that."

Still, it is a gradual process. Friday, in the midst of Watson going 3 for 5 to raise his spring average to .375 and his on-base percentage to .464, Robinson immediately jumped on the areas left for improvement. In the fifth, with the Nationals trailing by three runs, Watson nonetheless swung at the first pitch, flying harmlessly to left. "I knew I should've been a little more patient," Watson said. In the seventh, with Jose Vidro at the plate, Watson didn't take advantage of a situation in which he might have stolen a base, and Vidro grounded into a double play.

So he is learning. But as he does it, he looks comfortable, confident. And he remembers that time last season, when he played with the stars on the big stage. He doesn't want to waste that chance again.

"Any time you wait your whole life to play somewhere and you finally get there, and not many people reach that goal in life, it felt good," he said. "It's something you don't want to be without again, so I'm going to do whatever I have to do to keep that feeling."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company