By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 13 -- The offseason recruiting pitch from the Washington Nationals was a simple outreach to any rehabilitating, resurrected or retread starting pitcher who might somehow rediscover the zip on his fastball, the break on his curve, the will in his heart. Come here, to Space Coast Stadium, on the eve of spring, and have a chance -- make that four legitimate chances -- to break into the rotation of a major league club.
"I knew that I'd have an opportunity to perform," said Jerome Williams, late of the Chicago Cubs.
"Obviously, with all the openings," said Tim Redding, whose last major league win came in 2004, "there's a little bit more of an opportunity."
"Washington made it clear," said Chris Michalak, "that there was going to be an opportunity to pitch."
Thus, a theme for spring. But as the Nationals began spring training Tuesday -- when pitchers and catchers reported -- it was clear the time for jokes about the Land of Opportunity was over. The image of new manager Manny Acta raising a torch, spouting his speech -- "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to pitch" -- can be put aside. Thursday, when three dozen pitchers take the fields here for the first time, there will be competition. Slowly, those opportunities will be whittled away, and the process of choosing the four men left standing behind John Patterson -- the only starter who has ensured a spot -- will begin.
"We're going to deliver a message that we're just not after guys that think that they have the best chance to make a big league club over here," Acta said. "We're looking for the people that are going to help us win and help us for the long run, too. So if you're here with the frame of mind that 'I'm here because I got a chance to make a big league club,' and you don't bring to the table what we're looking for, then you're not going to be here long."
How precarious is each pitcher's position? There isn't a candidate for the rotation who spent all of 2006 healthy and in the majors. Redding and Williams, for instance, have each won 10 games in a major league season, yet each was discarded last season -- Redding by the Chicago White Sox, for whom he toiled in Class AAA, Williams by the Cubs, who relegated him to the minors in midseason. Both are on the 40-man roster. Either could end up as the No. 2 starter -- or unemployed.
"Whenever you don't have an actual major league contract and a job locked up going into spring training, you go there to impress from pitch one that you throw," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "You're trying to impress a staff that hasn't seen you pitch, and maybe open their eyes to taking a chance. These guys should be coming in here ready to roll. They got to be, because they have to impress us. Every outing is very important."
So Tuesday, they rolled in with that mind-set. Gone from last year are Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr., Livan Hernandez and Pedro Astacio, who combined for 104 starts. Two solid candidates for the rotation this season -- left-handers Mike O'Connor and Brandon Claussen -- won't be ready to start the season as they rehabilitate injuries. Yet that still leaves at least a dozen players for the four remaining slots -- and at least that many different mental approaches as to how to handle it.
"Personally, I'm going to try not to worry about it," said right-hander Shawn Hill, who has recovered from shoulder problems that ended his season last July. "Different individuals, if they get uptight about it, it could affect them."
At that point, Michalak -- a 36-year-old who started six games for Cincinnati last year -- walked by.
"Say if Chris throws well, there's nothing I can do about it," Hill said. "If he throws terrible, there's nothing I can do about it. Each of us has to take care of ourselves."
St. Claire and Acta, though, have to take care of the whole brood. There are significant logistical hurdles to getting each pitcher enough work in competition. Once games begin March 2, Acta said, starters will work in two shifts, with one pitching the first three innings and another pitching the next three until workloads are increased.
And then, the whittling process begins, and opportunities -- finally -- turn into jobs.
"Let's line us up, put us on the mound, get some hitters in there, and let's go," Redding said. "May the best guy -- the best four guys -- win."