Expectations Have Come Up Short

"I got a lot of things to prove," says the Nationals' Cristian Guzman, who hit .219 in his first year in Washington and then missed all of last season. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 18 -- In some ways, the season Cristian Guzman endured in 2006 was as bad as a player could have, sitting at home idly watching television while his teammates played major league baseball. Out the entire season with a shoulder injury, Guzman only occasionally joined the Washington Nationals at RFK Stadium, and when he did, he was an outsider, not on the field taking grounders during batting practice, not even in the dugout during games.

Yet in other ways, a year of producing zero hits was infinitely better than 2005. That season, Guzman needed a torrid September just to hit a paltry .219. He was perhaps the easiest out in the National League. He was regularly booed at home.

"I got a lot of things to prove," Guzman said Sunday upon arriving at spring training. "2005, I know that is a bad year for me. 2006, I not play at all. Now, in 2007, I have to do something."

Exactly what Guzman will be able to do is one of the linchpins of the Nationals' entire stay here, because there is a trickledown that begins with his right shoulder, extends to his head and involves the new second baseman -- converted shortstop Felipe Lopez -- as well as the front office and the new manager. Right now, Guzman's own assessment of the shoulder -- on which he had surgery to repair a torn labrum last May -- is a bit shaky: "Not 100 percent."

In part because of that, the Nationals signed veteran infielder Ronnie Belliard to a minor league contract on Sunday. Belliard's presence would allow Lopez to move to short if Guzman isn't ready. And though Guzman was plain about his chances of taking the field on Opening Day -- "I think in two more weeks, I'll be ready," he said -- the club has requested an MRI exam be taken early this week. Stanley King, Guzman's agent, said the club hadn't yet informed him about the MRI, but was open to it.

"It makes sense, I guess," King said. "But I'm not worried. I think his shoulder's fine, and I think he's ready to have a solid year."

General Manager Jim Bowden, who signed Guzman to a four-year, $16.8 million contract before the 2005 season, said he expects Guzman to "bounce back," but he has said all along that he can't be certain.

"You can't predict the future," Bowden said. "I can't predict his shoulder is going to hold up. I can't predict he's for sure going to hit .270 like he should hit."

Before his catastrophic 2005 -- a season in which his average was an anemic .196 on Sept. 1 -- Guzman was a serviceable major leaguer who, Bowden frequently reminds, was the starting shortstop on a Minnesota Twins team that won three straight division championships. He was a .266 career hitter who was undisciplined and didn't draw enough walks, but who once hit .302 for a season and four times scored at least 80 runs.

Though the consensus was that the Nationals -- trying to establish themselves in Washington at the time -- overpaid for Guzman, there was no predicting his first two years with his new team would be this horrific. When Jose Rijo, one of Bowden's assistants, would see Guzman in their home country of the Dominican Republic in the offseason, Guzman would talk about his need to rebound.

"Right now, his pride is hurt," Rijo said. "He knows what he can do. Mentally, he was getting prepared for last season to make a comeback after his first bad year [in 2005]. When he got hurt, that changed his whole attitude. Now he's got something to prove to himself and to the people that believe in him.

"Cristian is a proud guy, and he wants to come here this year and prove to himself that [giving him] the contract wasn't a mistake."

That, of course, would require him to get two things back -- his health and his confidence. Nationals Manager Manny Acta, for one, is doing his best to restore the latter. He has said repeatedly during the offseason that "he is the shortstop here," and said he will hit in the second spot in the order unless he fails there. Even though Guzman's career on-base percentage is an unimpressive .291 in 460 games hitting second, Acta is undeterred.

"I don't think Guzie can be as bad as he was in 2005, not even if he tried to," Acta said. "I'm looking for him to be a big help to us. And we're going to need him big-time."

Guzman said his shoulder still becomes tired when he works out, takes a day off, and then tries to work out again. So now, the club has Belliard, who hit .272 with 13 homers and 67 RBI for Cleveland and St. Louis last season, ending up as a part-time starter on the team that won the World Series. In theory, he'll be in a competition with players such as D'Angelo Jimenez and Tony Womack for a backup infielder spot, though Acta -- who managed Belliard for two seasons in the Dominican winter league -- sounded more definitive.

"He's ahead of those guys," Acta said. "The numbers are there. This guy hit .270 last year and played on the World Series championship club. He's got the track record, and I think it's safe to say that this guy is on our club."

Right now, it is safe to say almost nothing about Guzman. On Sunday he hit from both sides of the plate in the batting cage, then took to a windswept field and handled grounders for about 10 minutes, smiling and laughing most of the way. He was asked if he feels pressure this spring.

"Never," he said. "Never in my life do I feel pressure."

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