VIERA, Fla., Feb. 20 -- The kids behind the chain-link fence squealed early Tuesday afternoon as the object of their affection approached: "He's right there! He's right there!" Ryan Zimmerman, reflective shades wrapped around his eyes and a cup of water in his hand, politely told a half-dozen preteens he was still working out, that he'd sign some autographs when he was done. He grabbed his gear and jogged to another field.

Not 10 feet away, Larry Broadway -- wearing shades that matched Zimmerman's -- stepped aside as Zimmerman walked by, sipped from his own cup and grabbed his own equipment bag. The kids followed Zimmerman. Broadway stood to the side, spit out a mouthful of water and followed the pack, just another body in another uniform.

Next year, it could be Broadway in Zimmerman's spot, the young man who can do no wrong, the one being asked if he can repeat such a fine rookie season. Or Broadway could be in some other camp trying for someone else's job, still clinging to the hope of making the big leagues. The next six weeks at Nationals' spring training will be filled with competitions, both significant and not, men fighting to begin careers and extend them. Broadway will be in one of his own, trying to fend off veterans Travis Lee and Dmitri Young and replace the injured Nick Johnson as the club's starting first baseman.

But he will be fighting another fight as well, one far more internal: Is he a prospect still on the rise or a career minor leaguer who'll never pan out?

"It's not cut and dried," said Dana Brown, the Nationals' scouting director. "But the principle of 'now or never' is a reality. It works differently for different people, because a guy his age could maybe need a little more seasoning. But it's a good thing that he's thinking that way, because it shows how seriously he's taking it. Here's an opportunity. What are you going to do with it?"

Broadway arrived here last week with that clear thought in his 26-year-old head. "They're not just going to say, 'It's your job,' " he said Tuesday after the Nationals' first full-squad workout. "That's not really smart. But it's mine to earn."

It is his to earn because Johnson, who suffered a broken right leg last September, has healed more slowly than expected. It is his to earn because the Nationals are unabashedly saying this rebuilding season is much more about the future than the present, and General Manager Jim Bowden would like to figure out if Broadway can be part of that future.

Either way, it is a crucial season for a man with 1,771 at-bats in the minors, zero in the majors. He is over the right knee injury that all but ruined his 2005, one that affected him in the field and at the plate and kept him from arriving at spring training a year ago in peak physical condition. Now, as Tim Foli, his manager at Class AAA New Orleans a year ago, said, "He looks firmer, healthy."

"And everything he does," Foli said, "is major league."

Brown feels the same way. He was working as a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the summer of 2001 when he saw a young first baseman from Duke put on a show in the Cape Cod League's home run contest, blasting 450-foot shots that were unmatched by the other prospects. By the following spring, Brown was the Montreal Expos' scouting director, "and I couldn't get that image out of my mind." The Expos (who later became the Nationals) took Broadway in the draft's third round.

Thus began an ascent. Baseball America, the trade magazine that aggressively charts the progress of prospects, rated Broadway as the Expos' third-best prospect entering 2004, the Nationals' second-best entering 2005. Then, the knee injury.

"I just wasn't right," he said last week. He ended up playing at three different minor league levels in '05. By the start of last season, Baseball America had dropped him to ninth on its list. This year, despite the fact that he hit .288 with 15 homers and 78 RBI in 444 at-bats for New Orleans in 2006, he is out of the top 10.

"It doesn't really mean anything," Broadway said.

What means something, though, was what he went through last summer. The Nationals were going to call up minor leaguers when rosters expanded on Sept. 1. But a month earlier, Foli told Broadway, flat out, he wouldn't be going.

"I just told him, 'I think you need that time to get your body back to wherever it needs to be,' " Foli said.

The prospect was still a project.

"I'm not going to lie to you and say I was, like: 'Oh, great, that's fine. I'll just go home,' " Broadway said. "I wouldn't say 'upset' about it, but I felt like I was doing all that I could do."

Yet he stayed in New Orleans, ended up separating his shoulder in the final weeks of the season, made a brief and unsuccessful appearance in the Venezuelan winter league, and then came here, with his best chance to break through staring him in the face. Lee, a nine-year veteran with an exceptional glove, will provide the stiffest competition.

"Hopefully, he does well," Lee said. "Hopefully, I do. We'll see who wins the job."

If Broadway doesn't win it, he will be back in the minors, another chance gone by. And a familiar process will start again, waiting for the manager to call him into the office, to pick up the phone, to get that call. He has been there before. Will he be there again?

"I'm over here," he said, mimicking looking around the corner, waiting for the call. "I hear the phone ringing."