By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
On Sunday, Lastings Milledge, who would very much like to be the Nationals' center fielder, stated his case with a single, two doubles and three RBI. Wily Mo Pe¿a, who'd also love a regular spot in that same outfield, cranked a long home run in an 8-3 win over Houston. So on Monday, in the spring tradition of taking turns, 'twas time for outfielders Elijah Dukes and Justin Maxwell to make cases for themselves. Dukes lashed a line-drive home run through a crosswind over the left field fence and Maxwell stroked a pair of hard singles while adding a sprinting catch in center field as the Nats beat St. Louis, 3-2.
A year ago, Nats spring training was not about competition. It was about prayer. Please, oh, please, let us unearth five starting pitchers who won't humiliate themselves. Is there a center fielder anywhere to be found? As for first base, the Nats looked at anyone with two legs and a pulse, including washed-up Travis Lee and powerless prospect Larry Broadway. Bench strength, are you kidding? Washington could barely send a respectable team on the field, much less worry about depth.
Now, all that is drastically changed. Will Nick Johnson or Dmitri Young start at first base? Which two veterans, from among Cristian Guzm¿n (.328 batting average last season), Ronnie Belliard (.290) and Felipe L¿pez (.245), will man the middle infield? Somebody has to sit. Will Paul Lo Duca or Johnny Estrada, both veterans, both injured, be the catcher? Or will Jes¿s Flores, 23, kick down the door and blow up everybody's plans? Will Dukes, a natural center fielder, find a crack in the lineup? And which of seven plausible candidates will fill out the five-man pitching rotation?
"It's a battle everywhere. So many guys and so few positions," said closer Chad Cordero, who leads the only unit where jobs are secure -- the bullpen, in which Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala, Saul Rivera and Jes¿s Colome all know their supporting roles and only a situational lefty, perhaps Ray King, must be added by Opening Day.
"The fight's going to come right down to the end of camp," Cordero said. "Our bench will be one of the best in the game. We've got two good-hitting catchers [both career averages .280 or above]. Dukes would hit 30 homers if he played every day. Dmitri or Nick has to come off the bench. L¿pez or Belliard, too, probably. We're going to have guys on our bench who are as good or better than the regulars. That's the way it is for every [good] team."
While his players have to fret -- and perform -- Manager Manny Acta relishes the contrast with his rookie season when he faced a multiple-choice test with no answers. "We do have that nice problem with our position players," Acta said. "In a year or so, I hope we have the same 'problem' with our starting rotation. Then we'll be ready to roll.
"It gives me more peace of mind to have so many choices. Around here now it's 'you snooze, you loose.' Guys can take your position in a heartbeat. Get a headache, take a couple of days off and you could get Wally Pipped," Acta said, referring to the Yankee who's famous for taking a day off and letting an unknown named Lou Gehrig play first base.
"Nobody's complacent. Every position except third base is contested," said pitcher Jason Bergmann. "Last year we were looking around trying to find people who could do the job. This spring it's about earning a job."
Acta is remarkably candid about several of the competitions. "Lo Duca is the main guy. Estrada came here knowing that. But there is an upside to the Johnny deal. He's much younger [31 to 35]. He could be the answer here for a year or two. But Flores is making it tough for us. Come on, he just looks like he belongs. He has a ton of fans in this organization."
As for the outfield, it's not as open as it looks. Austin Kearns in right field "lets me sleep at night," Acta said. "He's a leader by example, exactly the kind of player you want. Milledge? We went out and got him so that he can be here for years." Even in left field the Pe¿a Power and Light Company is probably secure because the Nats' brass wants to know if they stole a big-time slugger or just got a strikeout machine with a middling .787 career on-base-plus-slugging- percentage and defensive liabilities.
Besides, Dukes has to prove he's a reformed character -- not for days or weeks but for at least a whole season. "Once we are completely sure that Elijah is here for good, then you can make decisions. He's clear on that," Acta said. "Being up here [not the minors] is the best environment for him to get turned around. He's surrounded by real blue collar, down-to-earth people. Everything's got to be earned. He knows. Alex Escobar and Ryan Langerhans are in the picture, too. [Elijah's] not out there by himself."
Acta's basic principle is to sit back and watch, not prejudge. "They decide for us. Guys tell us what to do with them," Acta said. For example, Johnson arrived in camp in the best shape of his career, looking like he got transplanted into the body of a guy who suddenly hated In-N-Out Burger. On Monday, he stretched a single into a double, slid into second base and got high-fives from the whole dugout. From Sept. 23, 2006, when he broke his leg, until March 2, 2007, he never slid. Now, he's hit the dirt two days in a row. Meanwhile, Young has returned with much the same physique as '06, is injured and will never approach Johnson defensively. Everybody loves Dmitri, but he may be a $5 million switch-hitting pinch hitter.
In such seasons of competition, organizations have their preferences about who, in their dreams, they'd prefer to see emerge. All other factors, like contract situation, being equal, the younger player with more tools is always preferred. Such a player can fill a key role for many years -- one less major problem to solve. So, the Nats want the speedy L¿pez, 27, to bounce back from his .245 season, even though they respect Belliard, the pudgy 32-year-old professional hitter. This one will be a tough call because Belliard actually has better career offensive numbers and, while not fast, is slick and smart at second base.
"It's a real issue. Being young and talented is great, but you still have to perform," Acta said. "I don't have a problem with a guy like Belliard" starting.
As for the musical chairs pitching rotation, Acta does not mince words. "After what they did last year, [Tim] Redding and [Matt] Chico are in the rotation. Chico would have to pitch himself out of it," Acta said. Lefty Odalis P¿rez, because of his decent if unspectacular career -- 66-70 with a 4.47 ERA -- is assumed to be in the rotation, too. But things can get tangled.
Bergmann was almost unhittable before a midseason injury, but never returned to that form. "Which one is he? I'd be happy with a guy in between," Acta said. "I know he's not the last guy we saw." Lefty John Lannan, 23, who roared through four leagues in a year, went 14-5 combined and had six solid big league starts (4.15) is a factor, too.
"Lannan has moxie and command. He can hit the glove. He's another guy with a lot of fans here," Acta said. "We're not afraid to have him in our rotation if he forces his way into it. What wrong with him? But if [Shawn] Hill and [John] Patterson are both healthy, then maybe you can let Lannan develop some more in the minors.
Big league teams come in three varieties. The worst must search desperately for front-line players, as the Nats did last year. Those in the middle, aspiring to .500, have intense competition at many positions as they evolve. Champions yawn through the spring because on Opening Day their lineup will be Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz, Ram¿rez, Lowell, Drew, Youkilis, Varitek and Lugo.
This March will be thrills and chills for many Nats. That's progress. But someday they'd like a boring spring. In baseball, the only thing better than finding answers to your questions is to have no questions at all.