- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Ryan Church looks and sounds like he’s about to experience a nervous breakdown.

“It’s tough to sit here every day and not know,” the Washington Nationals outfielder said the other day from his clubhouse stool. “We’re kind of at the end now, and you’d just like to know: Is it going to be New Orleans or D.C.?”

Church is teetering on the Nationals’ roster bubble, uncertain whether he will make it to RFK Stadium for Opening Day or be shipped off to Class AAA New Orleans.

And he’s not alone. More than a half-dozen players trying to win a job on the Nationals’ bench find themselves in the same situation with 10 days to go in spring training.

Washington manager Frank Robinson has said he’s likely to open the season with an 11-man pitching staff. With eight regular position players, that leaves a six-man bench.

Four of the six spots essentially have been locked up since the start of camp: catcher Gary Bennett, first baseman Wil Cordero, infielder Jamey Carroll and outfielder Terrmel Sledge.

That means two roster spots are up for grabs among the seven remaining players: Church, fellow outfielders J.J. Davis and Alex Escobar, infielders Tony Blanco, Carlos Baerga and Ian Desmond and catcher Keith Osik.

The Nationals won’t keep three catchers, so that eliminates Osik. And the 19-year-old Desmond, while impressive this spring, is destined for Class A Savannah.

So the final battle comes down to the remaining five, a decision Robinson dreads having to make. Which may explain why every spring around this time the manager feels “like I have these guys’ lives in my hands.”

Robinson and his coaching staff and general manager Jim Bowden and his scouting staff will meet in coming days to whittle down the list of candidates and try to come to a consensus.

Ultimately, though, the final decisions will be made by Robinson and Bowden, with a litany of factors coming into play.

“Today, with the way things are, it doesn’t come down to one thing. It’s two or three,” Robinson said. “It can come down to [minor league] options, it can come down to contracts, it can come down to guys who are Rule 5. … It doesn’t come down to the best 25 players anymore.”

That’s why Church figures to be one of the odd men out next week when final cuts are made. Both Davis and Escobar are out of options — they can’t be sent down to the minor leagues without first passing through waivers.

Church, however, still has one option left. And that makes New Orleans his likely destination even though he already had a full season at Class AAA in which he hit .343 with 17 homers and 78 RBI.

“I think it’s [lousy],” Church said. “If they do send me down, that’s the only way I can look at it. They can’t say I had a bad spring. It’s a business decision, and I respect that. But inside, I’m going to be pretty upset.”

Davis came to the Nationals this winter in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates with no options left to his name. Considering the way he has performed this spring, it doesn’t look like he will need one. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder is batting a team-high .444 with four RBI and six extra-base hits, making him the front-runner to win the fifth outfielder spot.

“I feel that way, yes,” Davis said. “But I don’t know how they feel. I’m going to do my job — that’s to play ball — and they can do their job. Whatever decision they make, I’ll be happy with it. Because I know I came in here and worked hard.”

Escobar, acquired on the eve of camp from the Chicago White Sox, continues to be an intriguing prospect. But he has been hampered by a strained quadriceps this spring and has played in just seven games. Unless he remains hurt and can be placed on the disabled list, he may have to be let go.

Baerga and Blanco have far different backgrounds. Baerga was a three-time All-Star in Cleveland in the early 1990s and has become one of the game’s better pinch-hitters. Blanco, acquired in the Rule 5 draft over the winter, never has played in the majors. He had a big bat but is considered a liability in the field.

All of those factors will come into play as Robinson and Bowden make their final evaluations over the next 10 days and try to decide who among the remaining competitors can best fill out their bench.

“It comes down to who I feel like can do that job,” Robinson said. “[Bench players have to] sit for a while and not play but keep themselves in good condition and be able to contribute something when called on. That’s what I’m looking for.”

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