By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., March 25 -- When spring training opened nearly six weeks ago, one could have been issued a road map, a compass, an astrology chart and a deck of tarot cards and still been unable to predict the Washington Nationals' lineup and roster for Opening Day. But with a combination of official moves, gut instinct and medical opinion offered Sunday morning -- involving an apparent retirement, a hopeful resurrection, a pair of strained groins and a promising rookie -- the Nationals came into sharper focus eight days before the season starts.
The key development came when Travis Lee, a 31-year-old veteran first baseman, spoke with Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden on Sunday morning and, according to Bowden, said "he did not have the passion to play the game anymore." He was granted his unconditional release and will consider retirement, leaving veteran Dmitri Young -- who arrived last month on a minor league contract after a 2006 season filled with legal and personal problems -- as the starting first baseman until Nick Johnson returns from a broken leg.
"That was my goal," said Young, 33. "I was at the bottom of the mountain, the bottom of Mount Everest. I had to climb my way up, one day at a time, knowing that I had to work. It wasn't going to be given to me by any stretch."
Other Nationals, however, likely will be given new assignments. Center fielder Nook Logan strained his right groin while rounding first base Saturday. The injury, Manager Manny Acta said, "isn't as bad as we thought it was going to be . . . [but] it's going to be at least two weeks."
That increases the likelihood that Logan -- who said he was "a little sore" Sunday morning -- will begin the year on the disabled list. Thus, left fielder Ryan Church will move to center. And Kory Casto, who has never had an at-bat above Class AA, will almost certainly become the regular left fielder -- at least until Logan's return -- and could serve as a backup first baseman as well.
"I think we're leaning more to trying to find out what Casto can do here because of his age and what he represents for our organization," Acta said. "If Casto is going to be here, he's going to play."
Bowden would not speculate on how long Logan might be out, saying only that the injury was "about the size of a quarter." The club is planning to bring 22-year-old center fielder Rogearvin Bernadina, who hit .270 in 123 games with Class A Potomac last season, on Monday's trip to Lakeland to play the Detroit Tigers. Bowden said some Nationals executives have compared Bernadina's defensive ability with that of Logan, a superior center fielder.
"We're going to keep our open eyes," Bowden said, "not that the solution isn't already here if Nook can't go."
The other injury that will affect the season's first week is the strained right groin of right-hander Jason Simontacchi. Since Simontacchi was hurt throwing the last pitch of a five-inning outing March 14, Acta has been clear that Simontacchi must throw a bullpen session and then make a Grapefruit League start if he expects to be in the rotation when the season starts. He has done neither.
"Jason, he's not going to start the season with us," Acta said. "He's not going to be able to do it."
Acta said club officials have spoken to Simontacchi about the possibility of beginning the season at Class AAA Columbus, and he is open to that.
Thus, the rotation -- barring further injury or a trade, always a possibility with Bowden running the team -- is likely set for the first week of the season. John Patterson will face the Florida Marlins a week from Monday at RFK Stadium. He'll be followed by Shawn Hill, rookie left-hander Matt Chico, Jerome Williams and likely Jason Bergmann, who would take Simontacchi's spot. Levale Speigner, a Rule 5 pick from Minnesota, also could be used as a spot starter.
"The fact that we have five guys that came in here and competed and have pitched well, I'm pleased with that," Bowden said. "Now, that doesn't mean that you're going to do that when the bell rings."
Young's tumultuous last 12 months -- in which he admitted to problems with alcohol, pleaded no contest to a charge of choking a former girlfriend, was given his unconditional release by the Tigers and had Type 2 diabetes diagnosed -- are behind him, he said.
"I didn't exactly have passion, either, when I first came over here," Young said. "But being over there in the minor leagues with those guys . . . it gets those old juices flowing again. That's what makes coming to work a lot easier."
The Nationals, though, will monitor Young closely. He made an error at first base in Sunday's 6-0 loss to the Braves, and he played only three games at first last season for the Tigers -- making three errors in his last appearance there. Off the field, Acta said the Nationals aren't assuming Young's problems merely evaporated.
"It's very early," Acta said. "Guys get under contract, and sometimes they might get out of whack a little bit. He knows that he's going to have a zero-tolerance type of deal over here."
Young understands. "I've had my whirlwinds," he said. But as he headed out to batting practice, his new beginning officially began.
"It's a great sense of accomplishment," he said, because he knows he has detractors. "That's not my point, to prove people wrong. It's to prove to myself that I still have the ability to play."