Five Story Lines for Spring Training

Five Story Lines for Spring Training

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

WHO'S ON FIRST?

When the Nationals arrived in Viera a year ago, Dmitri Young, right, was a troubled, overweight afterthought, and Nick Johnson, left, was supposed to be back from a broken leg by, say, June 1. A year later, Young has recast himself as the NL comeback player of the year and signed a two-year, $10 million extension, and Johnson has yet to play. Now, Johnson, whose 2006 on-base percentage of .428 can transform the lineup, is out to prove he's healthy. Young, whose .320 average was the highest of his 12-year career, is out to prove '07 wasn't a fluke. Neither can play another position. What gives?

TROUBLED CHILDREN?

The Nationals traded for two outfielders with enormous potential and turbulent pasts. Lastings Milledge, 22, cut an inappropriate hip-hop song and rankled veteran teammates with the Mets. Elijah Dukes, 23, has a history of arrests and accusations of domestic violence. Milledge, once the primary bait in what would have been a blockbuster deal for Boston's Manny Ramirez, will get a shot to be the center fielder. Dukes, who homered 10 times in his first 148 major league at-bats, is a backup for now. If they mature on -- but especially off -- the field, both could be mainstays in Washington.

LIVIN' LA VIDA LO DUCA

When the Nationals traded C Brian Schneider (and OF Ryan Church) to land Milledge, they filled the gap by signing veteran Paul Lo Duca to a one-year, $5 million deal. Two problems: In December, Lo Duca appeared prominently in the Mitchell report on performance-enhancing drug use, and he has not yet addressed that situation. In January, he tore the meniscus in his left knee while working out, and likely won't be ready until March. His silence and his injury will make his arrival at spring training an event.

MUDDLED MIDDLE

When the Nationals reported to spring training last year, Cristian Guzm¿n was the shortstop, Felipe L¿pez, left, the second baseman, and Ronnie Belliard, right, was unemployed. Now, Belliard is coming off a solid season in which he hit .290, Guzm¿n must rebound from a thumb injury and L¿pez, with a putrid .308 on-base percentage, must right himself. The club is saying Belliard will start at second, Guzm¿n at short, and L¿pez must fight for time. Will that be true on Opening Day?

GROWTH ON THE FARM

Now that the Nationals have taken steps to revitalize their long-moribund farm system -- their 2007 draft was rated as the best in the majors by Baseball America -- the focus soon will turn to when that system will produce stud major leaguers. Though most of the best prospects -- first baseman Chris Marrero, outfielder Michael Burgess, and left-handed pitchers Jack McGeary and Josh Smoker -- remain years away, pitchers such as Ross Detwiler and Collin Balester could arrive sometime this year.


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