Cuts Run Deep As Opener Nears

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

VIERA, Fla., March 10 -- The guys with secure spots in the lineup and all the zeroes at the end of their salaries had long since showered and headed back to their life of comfort and carelessness on Monday when a clubhouse attendant quietly told Garrett Mock, a sturdy 24-year-old right-hander, that Manager Manny Acta wanted to see him in his office. Mock, who very much looks the part of a major league pitcher, turned to another up-and-comer, right-hander Collin Balester.

"I don't think Manny's going to call me in there," Mock said, "and tell me that my haircut looks good."

That, for a player who has never appeared in the majors, is the kind of macabre humor that can get one through what can be a difficult day. It is that point in spring training, with less than three weeks to go before the Washington Nationals open the season, when the starters need more time, when the roster needs to be refined.

Thus, along the wall of lockers that houses the prospects and the retreads, times get tight. Major league camp opened with 76 players last month. Getting to the requisite 25 by the opener doesn't happen magically, nor without hurt feelings or damaged egos. As Balester said Monday, "Today, everyone was kind of on edge."

So after the Nationals' 4-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers, the morbid parade to Acta's office began. In all, the club reassigned 17 players to minor league camp and unconditionally released one, veteran catcher Chad Moeller.

Such moves are both necessary and commonplace across Florida and Arizona this time of year. But on the day of cuts in a major league clubhouse, these aren't mere transactions. There is an uneasiness, a tension, to it all.

"Nobody wants to go into that office," said reliever Chris Schroder, who has experienced the wrong side of cut day before.

Many of those cut by the Nationals on Monday were players who were fairly realistic about their prospects of making the club. Balester, for instance, is only 21 and has yet to pitch a full season at Class AAA. Mock has never pitched an inning above Class AA. But for three weeks, they played on the same fields, used the same showers, ate the same clubhouse spreads as Ryan Zimmerman and Chad Cordero, two Nationals who never played a full minor league season.

"It doesn't matter who you are," Acta said. "When you come to camp, if you have the attitude that I have and that we want people to have, everybody believes they can make it. Everybody believes, 'I'm going to be the story of camp.' Even a few young guys who were just invited to camp, they kind of knew what was in it for them. But still, deep inside, they're like, 'I'll light up people's eyes.' "

Even with thoughts like that -- those filling the gray area between hope, belief and reality -- players on the edge look for little clues. Balester, for instance, noticed that his last outing had been cut to two innings instead of the scheduled four, allowing more time for more established pitchers. Moeller signed with the Nationals in December, before they brought veterans Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada aboard.

"You get the meal money for [only] two days, and you're like, 'Oh, geez,' " Balester said. "And everybody's like, 'Don't worry. Don't worry.' "

As a minor league manager for eight seasons, Acta gained plenty of practice in cutting players, though it was harder then. When a player is cut from the minors, he is frequently cast aside by the organization, not merely reassigned to another level. Still, Acta came up with guidelines: Be honest, and be thorough.

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