- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Washington Nationals interim general manager Jim Bowden might have been the busiest man in baseball during the offseason as he tried to make the club competitive.

In the process, Bowden appears to have addressed the team’s lack of depth last season, giving manager Frank Robinson plenty of options with a mixture of proven veterans and younger players.

“We have brought in a lot of young players like an [Alex] Escobar, a [Tyrell] Godwin or a [Tony] Blanco, and we brought in veteran players like [George] Arias and [Jeffrey] Hammonds and another young player like J.J. Davis,” Bowden said. “And the end of the day, we’ve got to figure what is best for this organization — whether it’d be the young player or the veteran on the bench.”

Robinson approached Bowden with an offseason wish list, and the GM granted every one: an outfielder who can drive in 100 runs (Jose Guillen), a shortstop (Cristian Guzman), a third baseman (Vinny Castilla), a starting pitcher who can throw at least 180 innings (Esteban Loaiza) and some veteran leadership.

“Depth has always been a problem here because we weren’t able to go out and get the people to back up the frontline people with the quality of the players we needed,” Robinson said. “We accepted it for three years. This year we set out to try and correct that, but you can’t do it all in one year here, because we’re still kind of restrained here as far as the spending is concerned. But we have certainly upgraded. … This will be a better all-around ballclub than what we started with last year.”

The Montreal Expos’ lack of depth in 2004 was partly because of injuries to first baseman Nick Johnson, who played just 73 games. Because of that and other lineup issues, Brad Wilkerson played all three outfield spots and first base.

“It was so difficult for our team,” Wilkerson said. “If one or two guys went down, then we were going to be in big trouble. I think if that happened this year, they’ve built the team so we’ll be OK. … That’s a tribute to the depth they added on this ballclub in the pitching and the hitting.”

The Expos’ lack of depth meant middle reliever T.J. Tucker was forced to make an emergency start in the second game of a doubleheader last year in San Francisco. Tucker, who went 4-2 with a 3.72 ERA, allowed six runs on six hits and two walks in a 14-4 shellacking. He didn’t know until after the first game that he would be starting Game2.

“The game before, we had to use a couple pitchers in that one, so that was one of the times [a lack of pitching depth] hurt us,” closer Chad Cordero recalled. “Where it hurt was taking him out of the relieving mix for the next couple of days.”

The lack of a permanent ownership group also contributed to the Expos’ depth problems. With no one around to write checks for minor league call-ups, the club was hamstrung.

“Two years ago, we were going down to Puerto Rico, and it was a torture schedule — we didn’t even get September call-ups,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “Obviously, we’re going to be in a different situation this year — we already are — and they say by [September call-ups] anyway, we’re going to have new owners.

“A lot of things are going to change. A new owner is going to come in, and if he’s going to pay that kind of money, he’s going to want to win and possibly even upgrade at the trade deadline. We’re not going to be under those budget restraints this year.”

And without a lot of depth, the Expos didn’t have anyone to come in, pinch hit and change a game with one swing.

“It’s tough to be mentally tough enough to come off the bench and pinch hit against a closer or set-up man at the end of a game and have a quality at-bat,” Wilkerson said. “The veteran guys that we’ve added are going to be key for us late in the ballgames.”

In just his second season last year, utility infielder Jamey Carroll was thrust into the starting lineup because of the trades of Orlando Cabrera and Alex Gonzalez and second baseman Jose Vidro’s continuing knee problems. Carroll appeared in 102 games and made 35 starts at second base, eight starts at third base and six starts at shortstop. That probably won’t be the case this season.

“This year you can see it right off the bat that they’re adding some veteran depth, and it should be interesting and exciting to see how it goes,” Carroll said. “We were playing every day in the minor leagues, and learning to be a bench guy in the big leagues is tough. Now when you get these guys that have been doing it for years, you can learn from them.”

The influx of veterans already has made a difference in the clubhouse.

“The chemistry is awesome here,” pitcher Tony Armas Jr. said. “Everybody is happy, and everybody is looking forward to the season. That’s something that is very big for us. That’s something we didn’t have last year.”

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