Nats' Opener Comes With a Lot of Questions

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006

Jim Bowden has been in baseball for more than two decades, and has never experienced anything like it. Frank Robinson is entering his 51st season in the sport, and, likewise, this is new to him. "Odd," he called this spring, and even in the context of the Washington Nationals, that it was.

The Nationals have weathered more distractions and indignities than any team in the new millennium -- being purchased by Major League Baseball in 2002, playing part of their "home" schedule in Puerto Rico in 2003 and '04, moving from Montreal to the nation's capital for last season. Though the team is still owned by MLB -- and thus, is unlike any other team in pro sports -- a source with knowledge of the situation said yesterday that Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig is likely to pick an owner from among eight groups within two weeks, thus ending years of uncertainty.

Yet MLB has given timelines and deadlines throughout this process, only to blow past them. So meantime, on the field, that odd spring played out, leaving the men who run the Nationals -- who open their second season today in New York against the Mets -- with a decidedly unsettled feeling.

"This spring training's the most bizarre spring training I've ever been a part of in my career," said Bowden, the team's general manager. "It's been the most 'un-fun.' To me, it's been one nightmare after another. It's like I'm working for the fire department, just putting out fires every day."

It's as if the Nationals have taken the hope that comes with each Opening Day and replaced it with an uneasiness that resides in the pit of the stomach of each member of the front office, each member of the coaching staff. They will begin the season with six players on the disabled list. The latest, right-hander Pedro Astacio, went down Saturday. After an MRI exam and a subsequent exam by team orthopedist Ben Shaffer, Astacio had a right forearm flexor strain diagnosed, and he will begin throwing in five to seven days.

Astacio's injury depletes an already thin rotation, and in another spring might have been the defining moment, the cautionary tale that reminds people how fragile rosters can be. But given the list of catastrophes the Nationals are navigating their way through, it is almost a blip, just the daily fire that Bowden and Robinson, the team's manager, must put out.

Luis Ayala, a key reliever, was lost for the season after blowing out his elbow pitching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. Brian Lawrence, expected to be the third starter behind Livan Hernandez and John Patterson, underwent shoulder surgery before he even pitched in a game for his new team, and will also miss the entire year.

The team has a shortstop, Cristian Guzman, who desperately wanted to bounce back from a disastrous 2005, yet suffered a shoulder injury in the spring that is improving, yet still might keep him out for months. It has one rookie, Ryan Zimmerman, at third base and another, Brandon Watson, in center field, and while both are promising, "They're young," Robinson said. "You don't know what to expect."

It has a second baseman, Jose Vidro, who is trying to stave off chronic knee problems and whose average has declined for six straight seasons. It has a first baseman, Nick Johnson, who has never made it through a major league season without at least one trip to the disabled list. It has a right fielder, Jose Guillen, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery and arrived in camp concerned about landing a contract extension.

And, oh, by the way: It has a new slugger, Alfonso Soriano, who so badly wanted to stay at his old position, second base, that the team encouraged his agent to actively seek trade proposals. Finding none acceptable, the Nationals sent him to left field, where every ball could be an adventure.

Put all that in a pot, stir it up, and you get the strange stew that is the 2006 Nationals.

"It's a tough club to really analyze," Bowden said, "because I don't think we really know it yet."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company