Nats' Opener Comes With a Lot of Questions
2nd Season Begins With a Slew of Injuries, No Owner Once Again -- and More

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."

Such was the unpredictable nature of the spring that Robinson didn't announce his Opening Day batting order until Saturday, when the team concluded its exhibition season with yet another loss, this one to the Orioles in Baltimore. And in that lineup, both Bowden and Robinson feel there is reason for even the tiniest bit of optimism.

"Don't get me wrong," Robinson said. "We're not going to be a juggernaut. But I think we'll be better than last year."

That would be a season when the Nationals had unquestionably the worst offense in the National League -- fewest runs, lowest average, worst slugging percentage, fewest homers.

Some of the expected improvement will depend on Watson, the 24-year-old from Los Angeles who seized the leadoff role with an outstanding spring training. On Friday night, in a loss to the Orioles at RFK Stadium, Watson showed why he beat out Ryan Church not only for a spot on the roster, but for the starting job in center. He tried to bunt for a hit, and is a threat to do so at any moment. He swiped his eighth base of the spring for a club that had the worst stolen base percentage in the majors last year. He made a diving catch in the left-center field gap.

"If 'Watty' can do what he did tonight all year, which every one of us thinks he can, that's going to be a big, big part of our offense," Zimmerman said. "He's an exciting player to watch. If he can be on base and cause havoc, it's going to be a lot easier for us to drive in runs."

But even in that analysis, there is the most significant word in the Nationals' spring: If.

"I'm hoping Brandon can do what he did in March . . . and carry it over," Bowden said, "because that would give this team a big boost. But I can't answer that."

Vidro, who has looked healthier by the day, will hit second, with Johnson third, Guillen fourth, Soriano fifth and Zimmerman -- as impressive as any National offensively this spring -- sixth. If those players stay healthy, "We have the potential to be exciting," Bowden said.

"I think our lineup is going to be better than people think," Zimmerman said.

Yet even if the Nationals score more runs than the 3.9 they averaged a year ago, there is legitimate concern that they could allow significantly more as well. Their defense, the club's trademark during a stellar first half of 2005, was horrendous for much of the spring, leading Robinson to hold meetings, to talk to players individually, and ultimately to hope that when the lights come on, they'll perform.

And while club officials are very comfortable with Hernandez, who will pitch today, and Patterson at the front of the rotation, the last three spots are, as Bowden said, "huge question marks." Tony Armas Jr. is coming back from shoulder surgery. Ramon Ortiz is coming off a lousy season in Cincinnati, one in which he posted a 5.36 ERA. Astacio and Ryan Drese begin the year on the disabled list.

"Our third, fourth and fifth starters have potential of doing it," Bowden said. "But we don't know what they'll do until the bell rings."

Today, the bell rings. Hernandez, for his part, said over the weekend, "The team is better than last year." But after a spring of discord and discontent, Robinson and Bowden wonder.

"We're seeing a lot of individual pieces that, if it blends together and works out, has potential," Bowden said. "But [there are] too many unknowns. There's too many holes."

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