Nationals Notebook

Willingham Must Wait for His Turn at First Base

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 2009

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 2 -- When the Washington Nationals traded first baseman Nick Johnson to Florida on Friday, they also relinquished all stability at his old position. Johnson, at the time of the deal, had started 92 of Washington's 102 games at first. He had played 90.2 percent of the innings. Now, to fill the innings that remain, the Nationals must pick from a trio of players -- Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Ronnie Belliard -- who are better suited for other positions.

The Nationals will use the season's final two months to test Dunn (primarily) and Willingham (more sparingly) at first. Willingham, who has played exactly four career innings at the position, was supposed to get his first career start at first on Sunday. But when Austin Kearns was a last-minute scratch from the lineup because of a right thumb contusion, Willingham was shifted to left field, and Belliard received the start at first.

For Willingham, the shuffle merely delayed the experiment. When Johnson was traded, he immediately reminded interim manager Jim Riggleman that he was willing to play first. He has since been taking extra ground balls with coach Pat Listach.

Acting general manager Mike Rizzo expects either Dunn or Willingham to hold the position in 2010. "I don't see it as one of our priorities," Rizzo said, dismissing the idea that his team needs a player there. "I see one of these guys on our current roster taking that position next year."

The organization believes that first baseman Chris Marrero, its 2006 first-round pick, might be ready for the big leagues in 2011. Now in his third season with Class A Potomac, Marrero, hitting .299, fourth best in the Carolina League, is enjoying his best pro season, and Rizzo calls him "a middle-of-the-lineup guy." But Washington plans to keep Marrero, who missed much of 2008 with a broken right fibula, in Class A for the rest of the season.

Why the conservative approach? Primarily, because he needs to work on his defense.

"He's right on pace," Rizzo said. "He's a 21-year-old at the high Class A level. Every other 21-year-old this year is a junior in college; they'd be drafted this year and where would they go? They'd go to the [short-season Class A] New York-Penn League or something like that. So if you look at it that way, he's at least two rungs ahead of the college juniors, and he's younger than all of them. So he's right on pace with his developmental curve, and I just don't want him to take the challenge of the Class AA level offensively while learning a new defensive position. I think it's counterproductive to his development, and I think it's unfair to him."

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