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The Nats' Glut Decision

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Thursday, April 2, 2009; Page D01

Here are three chairs. Here are five players: Nick Johnson, Josh Willingham, Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Austin Kearns. Start the music.

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With Opening Day just four days away, the Nats have a problem. Granted, it's a nice one: more good hitters than they can get on the field, or keep happy, at one time. But it's still a problem. And the man in the hottest seat in this game of musical chairs is Mike Rizzo.

Few teams are in a better, or more treacherous, trade market than the Nats and their interim general manager. Rizzo could go a long way toward making or breaking his career here this spring. Welcome to the kitchen.

"We're talking to everybody," Rizzo said yesterday. And, for a change, many are talking back.

The Nats have the pieces that many teams need. Rizzo has a shopping list, but he can grant wishes, too. Need an upgrade at first base, left field or designated hitter? The Nats could make half the teams in baseball better at one or two of those spots. Soon, the Nats will need to make subtle judgments, and time them properly.

In theory, Milledge or Dukes could be traded. Go on, drive yourself crazy with the permutations. But the Nats' far more obvious trade value resides in two 30-year-old veterans, both established commodities. Johnson, a polished-fielding first baseman with World Series cred, has been healthy and hitting at his career-best level in Florida. And Willingham is a rarity, a slugger with a sane $3 million contract who isn't a free agent for three years.

How valuable are Johnson (when ambulatory) and Willingham? Right now, 20 teams will start left fielders on Opening Day with career OPS lower than Willingham's very good .833. But he's not slated for the Nats' lineup on Monday since Adam Dunn arrived to play in left.

How bad is baseball's current crop of left fielders? Obscurity for $100, Alex. Who are Nyjer Morgan, Fred Lewis, Chase Headley, Seth Smith, Endy Chávez, Travis Snider, Félix Pie, Chris Dickerson, Fernando Tatís, Ben Francisco, David DeJesús, David Murphy and Denard Span? Some are prospects. All are atop MLB depth charts.

As for Johnson, his career OPS of .853 is better than 14 first basemen and eight designated hitters who will start on Opening Day. The humble, mysterious DHs include Adam Lind, Billy Butler, Jason Kubel and Juan Rivera. Neither Willingham nor Johnson is spectacular. But either would improve many teams, including some contenders.

Willingham, still under club control for three years, defines trade value in the current market. Last week, he said he was not going to be happy if he didn't play. Why should he be? How many homers would he hit in cozy Cincinnati, where the Reds' current outfield is anemic?

But, according to sources, it will, at the least, take a high-profile prospect, close to big-league ready, to get him.

Johnson is a tougher sell in any trade because of his injury-demolished career. But, with a solid April, that could change in a hurry, especially if other teams have early-season injuries or flops by their young hot shots.


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