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Nationals Have Logjam Up the Middle

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

LAKELAND, Fla., March 18 -- Barring a trade -- and with General Manager Jim Bowden at the controls, that never is a good idea -- the Washington Nationals have three players for two positions in the middle infield. Two of those players -- would-be second basemen Ronnie Belliard and Felipe López -- have vastly different opinions about how they would handle losing the starting job.

"Bench?" López said Tuesday following a 9-1 thumping of the Detroit Tigers. "No. I already said that. No. Hell, no."

Belliard, speaking diagonally across the same cramped locker room from López, countered with: "I'm not going to get upset. Whatever they decide is good with me."

As the March 30 opener approaches, however, the Nationals say they have not decided how the middle infield will work out. Cristian Guzmán is slated to be the starter at shortstop, though López can play the position -- and he moved there early last season when Guzmán went down with a hamstring injury. That allowed Belliard to come off the bench, play second base and do what he does best -- hit. He did that well enough -- .290 with 58 RBI in 147 games -- that the Nationals signed him to a two-year, $3.5 million extension last July.

When speaking, Belliard has been diplomatic about the situation. "It's not on me," he said Tuesday. "It's on them." His play has been more forceful.

Tuesday, Guzmán started at short with López at second. In the sixth, after Guzmán went 1 for 3, Belliard came off the bench as a pinch hitter and immediately sent a pitch from Detroit left-hander Tim Byrdak on a line over the left field wall, his third homer of the spring. He went 1 for 3, dropping his average to .459. Afterward, in a 15-second span, Manager Manny Acta called Belliard's spring "outstanding" and "tremendous."

"I really don't care about spring training," Belliard said. "I've seen a lot of guys get hot in spring training and start the year slow. Sometimes, I told the guys: 'I don't want to hit no more. I don't want to get no more hits. I want to save them for the season.' "

It is to the point where Belliard's teammates have come to expect him to have among the best at-bats on the team. Some have even dubbed him "Mini-Manny," after Boston's Manny Ramírez, one of those hitters who, as players say, can get out of bed and get a hit.

"He's a guy that it doesn't matter who's on the mound, whether it's a no-name or one of the best guys in the league," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "He's going to give you a good at-bat."

The same could not always be said for López. Acta has praised López's attitude this spring, one that López entered knowing he would need to rebound after he hit .245 with a .308 on-base percentage in 2007.

López also has admitted that he lacked proper focus last season, but insists he has it now.

An all-star with Cincinnati in 2005, López is only 27 and on the brink of becoming a free agent at the end of the season. He will make $4.9 million this season, and given that he and the Nationals believe he has significant talent, he made it clear Tuesday he has no intention of backing up both Guzmán and Belliard.

López allows, though, that the Nationals face a difficult choice. Guzmán is hitting .356 this spring and said Tuesday he has picked up precisely where he wanted to after an injury-marred 2007. López is hitting just .205.

"It's really tough," he said. "You got Guzie and Belly, their numbers are there. I don't have the average, but I'm hitting the ball and having good at-bats. So whatever happens, I would like to stay here. But I'm not going to be happy on the bench. Hell, no."

Given that stance, López was asked if he would rather have a trade.

"I'm not saying that," he said. "I'm just saying I don't know what's going to happen."

Given the personnel the Nationals have in camp, it wouldn't be surprising if a deal happened either before Opening Night or early in the season. López played second base for just the second time this spring Tuesday because, after camp began, the Nationals signed veteran Bret Boone. Boone is hitting just .189 but has impressed officials with his bat speed and defense, and his appearance in 12 games took time from López at second. Washington also has former Atlanta Brave Pete Orr, an infielder who is hitting .364 this spring and is a capable second baseman, though he has played lots of third this spring.

"At the beginning, the plan was to have Lopey play at both places different days," Acta said. "With Boone in camp, we didn't want to kill Guzie and have Guzie play way too much at short."

Thus, the Nationals have parts to spare in the middle infield. The Chicago Cubs are in the market for a second baseman, though it is widely presumed they eventually will end up with Baltimore's Brian Roberts. Should that deal happen, the Orioles could become a logical trading partner for Washington, and Baltimore has scouted the Nationals heavily this spring.

In declaring his strong preference to start, López did not appear angry. He was, however, insistent.

"I'm just having fun, man -- for real," López said. "I don't even think about competition or whatever. I'm having a lot of fun. The guys are playing hard. I like these guys here. I like what the Nationals got going on."

Apparently, though, only if he's in the lineup.

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