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Nationals to Start the Season With a Better Feel for Pitching

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008

A year ago, Matt Chico walked into the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., in need of introductions. So many faces to match with names, names to match with accomplishments, accomplishments to add to the competition. Thirty-six healthy pitchers trickled into Washington Nationals camp in 2007, and that meant 36 legitimate chances to make the team, because an entire pitching staff needed to rise from rubble.

Last week, though, Chico already was in Viera, nearly two weeks before he was due. He is shacking up at the home of Shawn Hill, a teammate who now is a friend. At this point a year ago, the pair had combined for 45 2/3 major league innings, all for Hill. Last year, they combined for 264 1/3 , and Chico led the Nationals in games started and innings pitched.

"I think it'll be completely different now," Chico said. "I know what to expect."

If one thing has changed as the Nationals' pitchers and catchers prepare to report to Viera on Friday, it is that the field of potential starting pitchers has been whittled to a fraction of what it was last year at this time. Though three dozen pitchers still will assemble, the club, like Chico, has a better idea of what to expect. The random cast of retreads largely is gone. They've been replaced by what the Nationals hope are a few pieces of the future.

"It's a big difference," second-year manager Manny Acta said by telephone last week. "We're not out there looking for a whole pitching staff."

Acta is careful not to get into the "five-guys-vying-for-four-spots" type of game with the rotation, because there still is a competition to come. But he knows now what he didn't know a year ago: If they are healthy -- and the "if" should be simultaneously marked in bold and ALL CAPS and italics -- Hill, Chico, Jason Bergmann, John Patterson and Tim Redding all can pitch in the majors. He knows if they break down, a young group of arms that includes John Lannan, Collin Balester, Tyler Clippard, Garrett Mock and eventually even Ross Detwiler, last year's first-round pick, is developing with varying degrees of promise. The talent, the Nationals believe, is more concentrated.

"I know I have at least five to six guys that went out there and pitched for us last year and didn't embarrass themselves," Acta said. "Every one of them that pitched regularly for us had an ERA below 5. I know I have those guys there. We're not searching for them."

But culling better performances -- Washington's starters pitched the fewest innings of any team in the National League last year -- still will be a challenge. This is, to be sure, a tenuous bunch, one marked by fragility and inexperience. Take Chico. While no NL rookie made more than his 31 starts or tossed more than his 167 innings in 2007, he also allowed the most homers, earned runs and walks, going 7-9 with a 4.63 ERA.

"I'm fighting for a spot," Chico said by phone. He's just doing it a bit differently.

"Now, having the confidence of knowing he can pitch up here," Hill said of his teammate, "he can just go out and pitch and not worry about the nonsense, about what reporters are saying and all that. He knows he can do it. If you just do your job properly, everything will take care of itself."

Though Acta is not giving away spots in the rotation, he says of Chico, "How can you tell guys that led our team in innings pitched and strikeouts he's coming to spring training to compete for a spot?" Still, each of the pitchers has questions to go along with his potential. In fact, the pair with perhaps the most raw talent -- Hill and Patterson -- also have perhaps the most to prove given recent injuries.

Patterson, who turned 30 last month, has been limited by a series of nerve ailments in his right arm over the past two seasons, when he combined to make only 15 starts. Long gone is 2005, when he occasionally looked dominant in starting 31 times and posting a 3.13 ERA. Where does that leave the Patterson of '08?

"A healthy John Patterson, if you look back at 2005, is a potential number one or number two guy," Acta said. "But it's been three years now. First, we have to see if he's healthy."

Patterson intends to display his health immediately. Since having surgery to relieve pressure on the radial nerve in his right arm in September, he has progressed according to plan, he said. Last week, at home in Texas, he threw 100 pitches in a workout session -- fastballs, curveballs and sliders.

"I feel like I'm healthy," Patterson said by phone, before revising the statement. "No, I don't feel like it. I know I'm healthy.

Hill, 26, said he is 100 percent cleared to participate in drills following two minor surgeries in October.

"If he can make 30 starts, he'd win a Cy Young," Chico said. "He's got that kind of potential."

This about a guy who has made 25 starts in his major league career. But Hill's baffling sinker -- which opponents have, unsolicited, compared to that of Arizona's Brandon Webb -- makes him seem rife with potential. In going 4-5 with a 3.42 ERA in 16 starts last year, he gave up more than three earned runs just twice.

The Nationals believe even the unfamiliar commodities -- such as Clippard, acquired in an offseason trade with the New York Yankees -- have more promise than the group of unknowns last year. Thus, to this point they haven't aggressively pursued the remaining free agents on the market, a group that includes Liv¿n Hern¿ndez, their Opening Day starter in 2005 and '06.

"We want to see how these young players develop," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

How they do will determine not only much about 2008, but some aspects of 2009 -- and beyond.

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