Nats' Austin Kearns Trying to Emerge From a Crowded Field

"That bothers me, when I don't play well," says Austin Kearns, who is coming off an injury-plagued season that included just 17 extra-base hits. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

VIERA, Fla., March 9 -- Draw up the Washington Nationals' best potential lineup, if everyone is healthy, and it almost certainly includes Nick Johnson at first base and Adam Dunn in left field. Lastings Milledge is the center fielder, barring some unforeseen development. And then, cue up for the job in right.

There is Elijah Dukes, the high-upside, high-risk slugger who enters his second year with the Nationals trying to show his explosiveness on the field while he somehow stays serene off it. There is Josh Willingham, for three years a starter in Florida, acquired in an offseason trade. There is Wily Mo Peña, the massive tight end-like power hitter brought in by now-departed general manager Jim Bowden, and even Willie Harris, the utility man who proved invaluable in Washington a year ago.

And then, finally, there is the man who has started in right field in Washington since midway through the 2006 season. Austin Kearns arrives as something of an afterthought in this spring training, which has less than a month to go. He can't, right now, escape the numbers that seem to follow his name, the $8 million he'll make this year, the .217 average he put up in 2008. By some measures, he seems expendable, given Dukes's potential and Willingham's 62 homers from 2006 to '08 -- which is 15 more than Kearns has in the same span. Heck, even Harris -- all 5 feet 9 of him -- hit six more homers than Kearns last year.

Yet ask around Space Coast Stadium, and there seems to be a sense that when this team departs Florida for the regular season, Kearns will be on the flight. "He's one of those guys, you want to root for him," Manager Manny Acta said Monday, before Kearns took his spot in right field for what became an 8-6 victory over the Houston Astros in 10 innings.

Kearns understands, though, that the Nationals' fan base isn't completely on board with that sentiment. His numbers, since he arrived in Washington as a centerpiece in an all-star break trade in 2006, are simply not what anyone involved in the deal envisioned: a .248 average, .388 slugging percentage and 31 home runs in 1,112 at-bats.

"I'm my own worst critic," Kearns said. "I'm hard on myself, harder than anybody. That bothers me, when I don't play well. It really bothers me."

For outsiders, some of the disappointment in Kearns's production comes because Bowden pumped him up as a cornerstone of a rebuilding franchise, a player the team was lucky to sign to a three-year, $17.5 million extension prior to the 2007 season. Bowden, who originally drafted Kearns when he was the general manager in Cincinnati, talked about a player who had 40-home run potential. One member of the Nationals' front office scoffed at that notion Monday.

"We're going to be realistic about it," the official said. "That wasn't realistic."

Still, when Acta was asked about Kearns's potential Monday, he said, "I see him as a 25-[homer], 90-RBI type of guy." For that to happen, Kearns has to play. As he sat Monday two locker stalls from Willingham, with Peña and Milledge farther down in the home locker room and Dunn off starring for the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic, Kearns thought about the situation for perhaps the millionth time this spring. His conclusion: These things work themselves out.

"You ask every one of us, yeah, we all want to play every day," Kearns said. "But we've got more guys here now, and I think, honestly, it's a good thing, because that means our team's better. You got options now. If they want to make a trade, they can make a trade. We've got some depth to work with."

Yet those in the front office don't believe Kearns is quite that placid about his situation. The day before the team's first spring training game last month, he was taking batting practice with a new pair of batting gloves. He developed a blister on his left hand, directly at the base of his thumb. "It was just meat," Kearns said. "Gross." Yet some in the front office believe he is so frustrated at his 2008 -- a year in which he made three trips to the disabled list and produced just 17 extra-base hits in 313 at-bats -- that he wouldn't put the bat down before he made things worse.

There is, too, the matter of his contract. The $8 million he will make this year, considering both the current economic situation and Kearns's lack of production, seems outlandish. Kearns, though, said he must approach his season as if there is no monetary value attached to him.

"If I was making $10 or whatever it is, I expect a lot out of myself," he said. "I don't look at it that way. I don't take to the field to justify what I'm making. I expect a lot when I go out there, period."

On Monday night, Kearns came to the plate in the first inning against the Astros. Two runs were in, two were out, two were on. Back in the lineup for the second straight day after the blister was under control, Kearns laid into a fastball from Houston right-hander Felipe Paulino. It landed beyond the wall in left-center, a three-run homer. He later had a double. And they were just small reminders that -- regardless of the numbers attached to his salary or his batting average -- Austin Kearns is almost certainly part of the 2009 Washington Nationals.

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