Wednesday, Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. ET

Nationals Spring Training

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Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009; 2:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Chico Harlan was online Wednesday, Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. ET as spring training for the Nationals gets underway.

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Chico Harlan: Hey guys. Lots of news going on in NatsTown today. Josh Willingham signed one day after his 30th birthday. And yes, we can be pretty sure it was his 30th. Meanwhile, one of the Nats top prospects has a false identity. And is four years older than the team thought.

In other news, Panera continues to be the lunch spot of choice in Viera, Fla.


Silver Spring, Md.: Any reaction in camp to the story that 19-year-old Smiley Gonzalez is neither 19 nor Gonzalez? How embarrassing is this to the organization in general and particularly to Jim Bowden? Top Nats prospect falsified age, name (

Chico Harlan: Lots of reaction. Nothing from Bowden, because he is in Arizona today to work on arbitration hearings. But several of the players who know Gonzalez/Lugo from time in the Gulf Coast League were all talking about it today. Let's just say that these guys had quietly been a little suspicious about Smiley's age all along. In SMiley's first year of minor league ball, he was supposedly 17. Really, in retrospect, he was 21. Body-wise alone, that is a big difference.

Also, Jose Rijo briefly and reluctantly addressed the matter today. He took no blame for his role, and said that he was not to blame for the oversight.

But is this embarrassing for the organization? You bet. It's not a question of whether this is an egg on the face. It's a question of whether this is a whole carton or a whole farm. Remember, Washington signed Smiley in 2006 and announced the terms -- including his signing bonus -- in a press release. The idea was to use this signing as a de facto declaration about their seriousness to scout in Latin America.

So, this is a fitting turn of events. Things in the DR continue to get messier for the Nats.


Winter Park, Fla.: Chico,

Any arrival news or reporting on Chris Marrero, Destin Hood, Jack McGeary?

Chico Harlan: I did indeed see Marrero today for the first time. Hood, didn't see him, but players are always coming and going. McGeary was never invited to camp. He'll probably be in Viera next month for the team's minor league spring training, assuming he goes forward with the plans to leave Stanford and pursue minor league baseball full-time.


Penn Quarter: Hi Chico:

See a lot of chatter about Zimmerman hitting third and Dunn fourth. Help me out here: Assuming NJ is in the lineup ... short pause here as you wipe the knowing grin off your face ... aren't the Nats better served by having Nick hit third, Zimmerman cleanup and Dunn fifth? Thanks...

Chico Harlan: There's some good logic behind the L-R-L-R combo, and I see your point. Not saying it can't happen, though the Nats do seem to be married to the idea of Zimmerman 3rd, Dunn 4th.

So one idea

3 -- Zimmerman

4 -- Dunn

5 -- Dukes

6 -- Johnson

One far more improbable possibility

3 -- Johnson

4 -- Dukes

5 -- Dunn

6 -- Zimmerman



Washington, D.C.: How does Nick Johnson look so far in camp? Is he swinging free without pain in that wrist? Do you think the Nats will keep him or test the trade market?

Chico Harlan: So far, Nick has looked strong. He hasn't complained whatsoever about his wrist. He has acknowledged that he's had to work through a little soreness, but it has not hindered his swing. Rick Eckstein has raved about Johnson, and I'd say that the early returns on NJ are promising.

It will be tough to gauge Johnson's trade value until he starts playing and facing live pitching. If Willingham looks healthy, too -- and remember, he's had some back issues -- then certainly Washington has a surplus of OFs and 1Bs, and it might be the smart time to trade Johnson. But remember, the baseball world is skeptical about Johnson's ability to maintain his health, and for good reason. Given the doubts, his value, even after a strong spring training, might not be equivalent to his value as an everyday 1B for the Nats.


Winter Park, Fla.: Chico,

Any word yet on what number Adam Dunn will be wearing for the Nats? I saw Lastings Milledge last Saturday and he mentioned that he will be #85 now and Dunn will in Fact be #44?

Chico Harlan: Dunn is No. 32.

Milledge is hanging on to No. 44.

If Milledge changes his No. to 85, he might have to play bullpen catcher.


North of 300: I read in Steinberg's blog that Dmitri isn't talking to the press this Spring. What does he look like? Any action on the field that gives you a hint of his physical condition?

Chico Harlan: That is true. I was gonna post on that later, but I suppose Steinberg beat me to the punch. He reports accurately: Dmitri is pulling a Maya Angelou this season -- or at least those are his intentions. To not speak with the media this year. Ever. Even once. To be sure, Dmitri was cordial and friendly when he said this, but he made the point that his dealings with the scribes this year will stop at hello.

How does he look? Well, he's still carrying a lot of weight. How much? To eyeball it, I'd say between 300 and 310. But he looks much healthier than he did at the end of last season, when he came back to the Nats for an ill-fated attempt to get back into the field in September. At that time, he looked sickly. (Or maybe just unhappy... body language can sometimes bias your impression of somebody, and his body language was always sullen and lethargic.) Today, when DY came out during batting practice, he was smiling, playing catch. Looked a lot more like the player who came to spring training, say, one year ago.


Rockville, Md.: Which potential starting pitcher is helped the most by the Perez issue?

Chico Harlan: Good question. I'm saying Shawn Hill. A healthy Hill probably woulda gotten the nod over Odalis for one of the final spots anyway -- Hill, in the best case, offers far more than OP -- but now he's really the only "veteran" in the mix for the final spot.


College Park, Md.: Chico,

Have you talked to St. Claire or Acta about Daniel Cabrera? Has he pitched yet? I saw some posts about Zimmermann and Detwiler, and am wondering what the coaches thought of him.

Chico Harlan: Cabrera pitched in the pen today, and yes, I've talked to Randy about him. Their work together -- and the misson St. Claire faces with this talented but inconsistent guy -- will be the crux of a story sometime later this spring training.

Among the things that St. Claire mentioned...

* Cabrera is still only 27. Some guys -- especially those who are so tall -- need much longer to get a hold on their mechanics.

* You know Cabrera has potential, because you see it in flashes. So that gives you hope. "Sometimes guys just don't have a feel for actually pitching," he said. "But I think [Cabrera] has got a better feel for that. Because you can watch him and he has really outstanding games, and then for some reason in a game he'll walk eight, nine guys. So there is something going on there. You don't just go out there and just absolutely blow people away, nasty, and then two games down the line walk eight guys, 10 guys."

* Also, Leo Mazzone, Cabrera's old pitching coach, said to St. Claire that "Every time he goes out to the mound, he has a chance to throw a no-hitter."

Mazzone didn't mention that he also has the chance to drive you crazy, but Mazzone certainly knows that as well.


Sec 114, Row E: Esmailyn is not himself today.

What is the Nats recourse here? Clearly, Esmailyn misrepresented himself -- a 21-year-old prospect is much different than a 17-year-old prospect. Will the Nats be able to recover some of that signing bonus? Will they even try?

Will they hold onto him and put him on a development track that is "age appropriate"?

Chico Harlan: Hopefully Kasten can provide some of these answers this afternoon. Others I've spoken with today believe that if Gonzalez/Lugo is able to reobtain a visa and get back into the US, the Nats will indeed hang on to him. But Washington will have to change its plans for him based on this revelation. Gonzalez spent 08 in the Gulf Coast League, a league comprised of 17, 18 and 19 year olds. Nobody, say, who'd just graduated from college (and last year, Lugo would have been 22) would ever be sent to the GCL.

Had Smiley still been Smiley, he might have been pushed this season into Low A ball. Now, I think the Nats try to get him into High A, see how that goes, and try to accelerate his development. A 23-year-old deserves a far different track than a 19-year-old.


Washington, D.C.: Are the Nats pulling the purse strings too tight in trying to sign Zimmerman long term?

Do they feel they can get a discounted rate because he didn't really produce last season?

Does Ryan feel he's worth more than other All-Star caliber third basemen, or do the Nats feel like he's not worth that kind of contract?

The O's locked up their young talent (Markakis), you would think the Nats would have followed suit by now. Arbitration does not help the Nats in this situation, even if it may save them some money this year.

Chico Harlan: I don't get the impression that Washington is holding its pursestrings too tightly w/r/t Zimmerman. It's not as if the Zimmerman camp has been insulted by low-balling. Not at all. So far, the dealings have been cordial -- and that extends from the fact that both sides recognize Zimmerman's value.

However, long-term deals do not just happen in a snap. Zimmerman himself has so many variables to consider here. Does he want to sign a long-term deal at a time when he's coming off a down season? Or does he consider it wise to secure a big payday now? (Remember, even if Zimmerman signs at a "discounted rate," he still has his own financial incentive to do so. With arbitration, he makes either $2.75 or $3.9 million this year. With arbitration in 2010, maybe he makes between $4 and $6 million. But, by signing a long-term contract now, he could immediately enter a period of more lucrative earning. He could, in essence, rush the onset of his Maximum Earning Period.) Most people must wait for free agency to get there. That is why Zim might want to consider the long-term deal now.


Richmond, Va.: I saw that Willy Mo arrived early. Any chance he makes the team? If he has a decent spring, is he trade material?

Chico Harlan: He really has to fight for a roster spot. The outfield is already so packed. Trades and/or injuries might be WMP's best chance. Remember, he is not exactly the ideal bench player -- which is his only conceivable role. My guess is that he's eventually cut, and the team swallows his $2 million.


Section 138: Cheeks,

Now that our top SS prospect actually turns out to be Julio Franco, is Danny Espinosa who the club is looking at long term?

Chico Harlan: Haha. There's no way to know. Leave it to Baseball America to figure out the Nats shortstop in 2011. The development of these guys is just so hard to say. The key is to never be counting on one guy -- especially when you're talking about prospects in Rookie Ball or Class A. Sure, once a guy is tearing it up in Harrisburg or Syracuse, maybe you can start pencilling him into the future. Until then, teams just need to collect as much talent as possible and hope some of them, or several of them, or even just one of them, can make the climb.


Mercersburg, Pa.: Do you think Austin Kearns will push harder now that he and Adam Dunn have been reunited?

Chico Harlan: Whew, that's a tough one, and it requires quite an assumption -- namely that AK wasn't really pushing himself last year. (Or even in several of the last years?) Not everybody thinks much of Kearns' abilities, but the guy does work. Desire is not his problem. Most in Washington's clubhouse think highly of his approach to the game. Laziness won't be Austin Kearns' demise.


Lincoln, Neb.: Now that Dunn is in the fold, does it look as though there will be any more transactions or is the roster fairly set for now. How does the second base situation look? Lead-off?

Chico Harlan: I'll talk a bit about second base and lead-off, both interesting, especially because the two matters are intertwined.

SS Cristian Guzman and CF Lastings Milledge both fit well in the No. 2 spot, but what about lead-off? Maybe you just pop Guzman up there and settle things like that. But the other option is keeping Guz at No. 2, dropping Milledge in the order, and using somebody like, say, Willie Harris as the lead-off man. That is, if Harris becomes your No. 1 second baseman. (And he probably is a long-shot... though I think he should get a long long.)

If Anderson Hernandez or Ronnie Belliard is your starting second baseman come Opening Day, the lineup probably has Guz and Milledge at the top.

As for the Hernandez/Belliard/Harris question at second? No matter how much Hernandez might seem like the sleek pick -- he's young, and he played super-well down the stretch last year -- do not forget about Ronnie Belliard's productivity in 2008. He had the second-best slugging percentage on the team, after Elijah Dukes. In a six-week battle for the 2B job, I'm inclined to give Belliard the edge.


Topsail Beach, N.C.: If we really go out on a limb and pencil Nick Johnson in at first base and Adam Dunn in left field, who starts in right- Josh Willingham, Elijah Dukes or Austin Kearns? Of might Dukes be switched to center, especially if Lastings Milledge doesn't hit well this spring and Kearns and Willingham do?

Chico Harlan: I'd rank the RF candidates as follows, starting with the most likely




The team wishes to keep Dukes in a corner outfield spot and Milledge in CF; nothing this spring is going to change that.


Fairfax, Va.: Is Wil Nieves still slated to be the back-up catcher behind Flores?

Chico Harlan: Yeah, Nieves is the likely choice as the back-up. (And haven't we agreed by now that that's the best job around? That, or maybe reviewing restaurants. Or being a travel writer.) Anyway, if Nieves is gonna get any competition, it will come from recent minor league signee Javier Valentin. But Nieves is the favorite.


Anonymous: Re: Smiley Gonzalez

Rickey Henderson just got an idea....

Chico Harlan: Love it.

On that, I'm gonna sign off. Time for a busy afternoon of writing about falsifications. Thanks for the questions, NatsTown. Go get your red on. And stay out of the cold.


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