Watson's Numbers May Not Be Enough

Nats outfielder Brandon Watson, diving toward second, is batting .311 this spring but he might not make the club.
Nats outfielder Brandon Watson, diving toward second, is batting .311 this spring but he might not make the club. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

JUPITER, Fla., March 27 -- He came to spring training having been told he would have the chance to win a job as the Washington Nationals' starting center fielder and leadoff man, and on paper, he has done little to fritter away that opportunity. Brandon Watson left Monday's 7-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals with a single, a .311 batting average, a .368 on-base percentage -- and, a week before Opening Day, absolutely no assurance he would be with the Nationals when they begin the season in New York against the Mets.

"I feel good about my spring," Watson said. "But I can't control anything. All I can do is make it hard on them, make them make a tough decision."

And so, with the season beginning next Monday, the Nationals have a small handful of decisions in setting the final 25-man roster. In a spring marked by controversy (Alfonso Soriano's reluctant move to the outfield) and catastrophe (season-ending injuries to pitchers Brian Lawrence and Luis Ayala), the front office and the players alike are hoping for calm over the next week, when they can evaluate the final few pieces and make the correct choices. Several cuts will likely come Tuesday, leaving only the final few choices to be made when the team heads to Washington for an exhibition game Friday.

"I don't care how you put it, how you say it," Manager Frank Robinson said. "This late in the spring, it can be devastating to the individual."

It could, potentially, be devastating to Watson. Robinson and General Manager Jim Bowden believe Watson, 24, needs to play every day, in the majors or at Class AAA New Orleans. That means that even though there are five outfielders who most deserve to be on the roster -- Soriano, Jose Guillen, Ryan Church, Marlon Byrd and Watson -- everyone in that group won't make the final cut.

Of those players, Watson and Church are the only ones who have options remaining -- meaning they could be sent to the minors and would remain under the Nationals' control. Byrd has had an outstanding spring, hitting .320 with a .520 slugging percentage, so Washington won't let him go. That would leave Church, whose spring hasn't been as productive as Watson's. He is hitting just .200 with five RBI.

"I'd like to have some more hits," said Church, who went 0 for 2 Monday. "I started out hot, but then I kind of dialed it back. I didn't want to fire all my bullets. Now, I've got to get my timing back. But I'm not worried. I'm ready to get going."

Robinson, too, said he is not concerned about Church, and in fact he has left him out of the starting lineup each of the past two games to "hopefully let his mind relax a little bit, [to] physically get his energy back and get him ready for the season."

Even as they prepare to make Church the starting center fielder and Byrd the man who plays against left-handed pitchers -- they could also share the leadoff role -- there are some high-ranking members of the organization who struggle with the decision, particularly given Watson's spring performance. Bowden, though, has long been intrigued by Church's potential, particularly his quick hands. "They don't get any better than that," Bowden said. Church hit .287 with nine homers and 42 RBI in 268 at-bats as a rookie in 2005, and at 27, there's a sense in the organization that he should be in the majors full time.

So it appears likely that, sometime this week, Watson will feel that tap on his shoulder and have to make the walk to the manager's office.

"You want to be able to be at the highest level of baseball, and that's the big leagues," Watson said. "If you get an opportunity to play in the big leagues, you want to take advantage of that. But for some reason, if I don't get it, I'll just have to deal with it. But it'd be a little disappointing."

Robinson said Monday that the team really had just one decision it was wrestling with at this point, and though he wouldn't divulge it, it is almost certainly for the final spot on the bench, one between first baseman Daryle Ward and outfielder Michael Tucker. Ward, 30, is having a far better offensive spring, hitting .279 and slugging .581 with four homers in just 43 at-bats. Tucker, 34, is hitting .176 with just one extra-base hit in 34 at-bats.

The argument against Ward, however, is that he can't play anywhere but first base, and he is woeful defensively. Plus, the Nationals will almost certainly carry first baseman-catcher Matthew LeCroy and definitely will have infielder Marlon Anderson, two potentially solid bats off the bench who provide little in the way of defense. Can they carry Ward -- who, like Anderson, is a left-handed hitter -- as well?

If Tucker doesn't make the club, the Nationals would be vulnerable to an injury in the outfield, particularly if Guillen isn't fully recovered from his offseason shoulder surgery. Tucker hit .239 with five homers in 268 at-bats for San Francisco and Philadelphia in 2005.

The other bench spots seem determined: Anderson, LeCroy, Damian Jackson, Byrd and a backup catcher, either Alberto Castillo or Wiki Gonzalez.

There is a possibility that, should the Nationals decide to keep Ward, they could find a club that would take Tucker in a trade. Lefty Joey Eischen is the other most likely player to be traded, and that would open a spot on the roster for prospect lefty Bill Bray, the team's top pick in the 2004 draft out of William & Mary.

Whatever the choices, and whatever the subsequent moves, there will be someone who is disappointed over the next week.

"Do I worry about it?" Robinson said. "Of course I worry about it. But there's not a lot you can do except explain to the individual, and let them hear it from you first, and hopefully he can understand the reasons why."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company