Nats' Acta Puts López, Young on The Bench

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Friday night, after the Washington Nationals held their first workout at their new park, Manager Manny Acta invited Felipe López and Dmitri Young, one after the other, into his still unfurnished office. The news to be delivered to each was the same: Acta believes in their abilities, but after a spring in which they were involved in battles for playing time, they will begin the season on the bench. Instantly, they were transformed into $9.9 million worth of switch-hitting reserves.

With those meetings, Acta in effect named Nick Johnson his starting first baseman, Ronnie Belliard his starter at second and Cristian Guzmán his shortstop, though Acta didn't meet with the winners. To anyone who watched the Nationals consistently at spring training, the decisions were obvious, because Johnson has completely overcome a broken leg that cost him the entire 2007 season and because Belliard was perhaps the Nationals' best hitter during the spring.

Even with that evidence, Acta said the decisions were "not easy."

"As I mentioned before, that's a sign of progress here," Acta said, "when you have guys that have been all-stars being on the bench."

López, thought to be a key piece of a July 2006 trade with Cincinnati, and Young, the 2007 National League Comeback Player of the Year with the Nationals, are well aware of their own abilities. Publicly, both took the decision professionally and vowed to stay prepared, even if they play sparingly.

"Naturally, not happy," Young said. "But at the same time, I'm happy for Nick to be able to come back from his injury. He worked his tail off to get back to a starting position."

Young and Johnson had maintained a friendly relationship throughout the spring, and Johnson yesterday called Young a "great guy [who] had a great year." The battle in the middle infield was at times more tense. Two weeks ago, López defiantly said he wouldn't accept a reserve role. Yesterday, he vowed to support Guzmán and Belliard.

"I feel happy for those guys," López said. "Like I said before, I have nothing against them. I never have. And I just want to win. If [Acta] needs me to go in there and pinch hit, I'll just be ready. It's a long season, and you never know what can happen. I know my moment is going to come, and I'm not going to miss it. I'm going to be ready for it."

Acta said there were several factors involved in choosing Johnson over Young, who hit .320 and was the Nationals' lone representative in last season's All-Star Game. One was Johnson's propensity to get on base; his .428 on-base percentage in 2006 was third-best in the National League. Johnson is also a superior defender, and Washington's infielders believe he could save them several errors by picking poor throws out of the dirt. Young, too, was signed basically as insurance last spring, when Johnson was still ailing.

"Before Dmitri Young, there was Nick Johnson here," Acta said. "Dmitri got his break last year because Nick was hurt. Nick is back. He's a big part of our offense, a big part of our team. And so is Dmitri Young. You can't have two first basemen in a game."

Johnson, who said he was "happy" to get the news, now wants to play every day. He played a career-high 147 games in 2006 before breaking his right leg on Sept. 23. At no point during the recovery, he said, did he ever think his career was over.

"Never," Johnson said. "Just a lot of ups and downs, but never thought I was done playing."

The situation is more fluid in the middle infield. Acta said he could envision a scenario in which López -- coming off a poor year in which he admitted to not maintaining his focus -- would play for Belliard one day and Guzmán the next.

"There's going to be plenty of opportunity for him," Acta said. "I'm going to keep those guys fresh. It's not like there's a big, big, big difference between the three of them. . . . They'll let me know who should be sitting there for a longer period of time."

Guzmán, whose stellar .380 on-base percentage in an injury-shortened 2007 was significantly higher than his career mark of .302, will thus serve as the Nationals' leadoff man, a position López owned to begin 2007. Johnson will bat cleanup, a left-handed hitter between the right-handed Ryan Zimmerman and Austin Kearns.

Neither López, who will earn $4.9 million in this final season before he becomes a free agent, nor Young said he would demand a trade.

"That's not even on my mind, not being here, because I just want to win at this point," López said. "It's over now, and they decided who's going to start or not. That's all over. Now, it's about winning and being with the team -- and being ready for the team."

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