By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 25 -- The best part of the wedding planning? That would be the cake-tasting, of course. For Chad Cordero, it was the only time all offseason he cheated on his current diet, and it wasn't even really cheating, because his fiancee and diet-motivation guru was there with him. And for that matter, it isn't even so much a diet as a change in eating habits, designed not only to get him in better shape for this season with the Washington Nationals, but also to look better for those wedding pictures.
"I'm just trying to just take it off slowly," Cordero, the Nationals' closer, said recently. "It's about being healthier. Because the healthier I am, the longer I can play. And I want to play for a while, hopefully another 10 more years."
The guy who shows up to camp all slimmed down is one of those classic spring training cliches, along with the castoff from another team seeking a fresh start in a new clubhouse, the oft-injured pitcher proclaiming himself completely healthy and the troubled player who vows to have turned his life around this time. The Nationals have several examples of each.
But of those, only Cordero can truly be counted upon. He is to the Nationals' bullpen what Ryan Zimmerman is to their lineup: the one sure thing. Zimmerman plays third base. Cordero pitches the ninth. End of story.
"He's a guy who, when he's throwing [this spring], I don't even waste my time going to look at him," Manager Manny Acta said of Cordero, "because I already know what I'm going to get."
Cordero, who turns 26 next month, found his motivation to lose weight in the love of Jamie Moody -- an ex-gymnast he met during his all-American days at Cal State-Fullerton, to whom he proposed last year and whom he will wed in a seaside ceremony in Dana Point, Calif., in November -- and in an album of photos from college, which gave him a startling contrast to what he saw in the mirror.
"I was 195 pounds back then, which is still big for my size, but obviously skinnier than I am now," he said. The highest he ever weighed was "just under 230" last season. "But in '05, I was 215, so that's what I wanted to get back to. I have a little ways to go. It's going to take a while to get it all off."
This, then, was the offseason of both personal growth and personal downsizing for Cordero. His girlfriend became his fiancee. His waistline decreased. He avoided arbitration with the Nationals last month by signing a one-year contract that will pay him $6.2 million, making him the highest-paid player on the team. Edward and Patricia Cordero's little boy, the pride of Chino, Calif., is all grown up.
"It's strange, but at the same time it's pretty cool," Cordero said, musing over the fact he is the second longest-tenured player in the organization, behind reliever Luis Ayala. "I'm really trying to help the younger guys now, hanging out with them, making sure they know exactly what to expect up here.
"It's important for me, because I remember when I first came up [in August 2003], a lot of guys were upset because they brought me up after only two months in the minors. But then, after about a week, everyone started coming up to me and helping me. That's what I feel like I need to do now."
If Cordero would like to get back to his 2005 weight, so, too, would he like to return to that season's level of performance, when, at the age of 23, he made the all-star team, posted a 1.82 ERA, led the league with 47 saves -- including 15 in June, tying a major league record for a single month -- and held opposing batters to a .198 batting average.
Last season, his ERA and opponents' batting average rose to 3.36 and .260. Cordero suspects the weight and the performance are not unrelated, and he acknowledges a lack of conditioning may have contributed to late-season slides in 2006 and '07.
"I definitely want to get myself to the point where I feel stronger late in the season," he said.
The one wild-card for Cordero in 2008 -- as it is, at least to some degree, for everyone on the Nationals -- is how the team's new stadium, Nationals Park, will play. And while every Nationals pitcher benefited from the cavernous dimensions at RFK Stadium, nobody seemed to serve up as many (inhale) deep fly balls that (exhale) expired on the warning track as Cordero.
"It's going to be different," he said. "But we can't go out there and change everything because it's a smaller ballpark. Obviously, with a smaller ballpark you can't afford to give up easy bases or leadoff walks, because if they do hit a homer, that's two runs instead of one. It might put more emphasis on throwing strikes, but that's something every pitcher needs to do."
At times, the chances of Cordero's making it to the new stadium in a Nationals uniform appeared remote. His name has been a constant subject of trade rumors the past two years -- since he was that perfect combination of young, cheap and dependable, in a marketplace where everybody seems to always need bullpen help. But those were the same reasons the Nationals saw him as too valuable to give up.
As his service time and his salary have grown, in a roundabout way, Cordero seems more tethered to the Nationals than ever. He's no longer cheap, and free agency is no longer so far in the distance -- it is less than two years away.
"They have me for this year and next year," Cordero said. "I know I still could get traded, but hopefully I don't."
If he could make it through the past two seasons in a Nationals uniform, surely he can make it through one more -- long enough to figure out how much leeway he has within the fences of Nationals Park, long enough to show what he can do when his mind and his waistline make a return to 2005.
And when it's over, there is Jamie and the wedding to look forward to. Maybe he'll even treat himself to a piece of his own cake.