Sunday, February 11, 2007
This week in the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., jerseys will hang for Washington Nationals numbered from 00 (Tony Womack) to 81 (Darnell McDonald). There will be two Diazes (Frank and Felix), a pair of Martinezes (Anastacio and Luis), three Mikes, a Michael -- not to mention a Micah -- and everyone from A(breu) to Z(immerman). Perhaps a social hour is in order. Handshakes all around.
"I'm not going to lie," veteran catcher Brian Schneider said. "I don't know some of these guys."
Nor, of course, do even ardent observers. The characters who left the Nationals after last season are far more accomplished than those who arrived since. In his sole season in Washington, Alfonso Soriano stole 41 bases and hit 46 homers, all while playing for then-manager Frank Robinson, whose 586 career home runs in the majors are 224 more than the members of Washington's current 40-man roster -- combined. Soriano was replaced in left field by . . . well, that hasn't quite been determined yet. Robinson was replaced by Manny Acta, who has managed 2,242 fewer big league games than the Hall of Famer -- which is to say, zero.
"We'll all have to get to know each other," Acta said.
So as the Nationals trickle into Viera -- pitchers and catchers report Tuesday, with position players due a week from today -- they will arrive in a clubhouse with a bank of auxiliary lockers in the middle of the room, where space to sprawl will be limited to the folding chairs in front of each stall. Of the players who compose the club's 40-man roster and 31 non-roster invitees -- more players than any other team will have in major league camp -- only seven managed to avoid injury and demotion in 2006. Just three of those -- relievers Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch, and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman -- were with the Nationals all year.
Introductions, then, are in order.
"We're all going to have to learn each other, even learn names," said clubhouse manager Mike Wallace, the man in charge of new shoe sizes, new pant lengths, new numbers stitched on jerseys. "Hopefully, we won't go too many days of walking by and saying, 'Hey, buddy.' "
A quick scan of the Nationals' spring training roster is likely to provide several "Who's that?" moments. But really, the focus of the upheaval is on the pitching staff. Once first baseman Nick Johnson heals from a broken leg -- a process that will be closely watched during the spring -- the infield is all but set, with Zimmerman at third, Cristian Guzman returning at shortstop after a year lost to injury, Felipe Lopez moving from short to second and Schneider behind the plate. The outfield, too, is somewhat easy to predict, with Austin Kearns in right, Nook Logan (barring a disastrous spring) in center and a four-way competition in left among Ryan Church, Kory Casto, Alex Escobar and Chris Snelling, with Church as a slight favorite.
But the pitching? Sort it out. There are 38 pitchers on the roster. And while the relief corps is likely to be one of the Nationals' strengths -- anchored by closer Cordero and featuring the return of setup man Luis Ayala from elbow surgery -- the rotation consists of right-hander John Patterson and a bunch of guys at opposite ends of the spectrum, either trying to establish careers or resuscitate them. Take the 17 or so contenders to start, put the names in a hat, shake them up and -- presto! -- out comes Washington's rotation.
"I've never gone into a spring training where I didn't know who the first three starters were going to be," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "They might not have been the quality that we wanted, but we knew the first three. And then, it was a question, always, of who four and five were going to be. Or, in the good years, it was just who the fifth starter was going to be.
"I've never been to a spring training where we knew who one of the five was going to be, and he won one game and made eight starts last year."
That would be Patterson, already dealing with the label of "ace" despite the elbow problems that limited him to those eight starts in 2006, despite the fact that he has never won 10 games in a season, despite the fact that his career record is 17-20. As Schneider said: "I guess he's the ace of the staff," and then he paused, thinking about it. "He is, once you look at it."
"I think I'll have to kind of set the pace for the pitching staff and try to set a good example," Patterson said. "I'm going to have to go out and eat up innings, which is something I feel like I can do. I'm going to have to show a lot of maturity this year."
With all the variety on the Nationals' roster -- players born in eight countries, 21 states and one U.S. territory -- perhaps no player better exemplifies what Bowden called "a great opportunity for people to get opportunities" than Jason Simontacchi, a right-hander who, unsolicited, Schneider said might be "a sleeper candidate" for the rotation based on an effective change-up.
Simontacchi laughed upon hearing that assessment.
"It's nice to know someone knows who you are," Simontacchi said.
Here, then, is a list of teams for which Simontacchi has pitched: Bridgeport of the Atlantic League (2006), Chico of the Western League (2000) and Springfield of the Frontier League (1998), all of them independent circuits. Six stops in the minors before he finally reached the majors with St. Louis in 2002. And don't forget a tour in the Italian Professional League in 2000, winter ball in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and a three-month stint in Australia in which he put in sprinkler systems during the week and played pro ball on the weekend. Not to mention the 2005 season lost to shoulder surgery and the long fight back that has Simontacchi "really just happy to toe the rubber."
Given that vagabond existence, Simontacchi must know some of the guys who will be his new teammates.
"I believe I've played with [lefty] Micah Bowie before," he said. "With the Royals, maybe? I don't know where it was or who it was with. I know some of the names, but to tell you the truth, I don't know anybody on this team."
Alas, Simontacchi's memory failed him. He and Bowie, it seems, never shared the same clubhouse -- until now. So when they first cross paths, they will likely repeat the mantra of Nationals' spring training: "Hello. My name is . . . "