- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

They have spent the last four months defending their grand plan to rebuild themselves into a championship-caliber franchise, determined not to deviate from their charted course while trying to convince the general public to climb aboard and enjoy the ride.

Now it’s time to start seeing “The Plan” in action.

The Washington Nationals begin spring training today, aware of all the doom-and-gloom predictions for the upcoming season but resolute in their motivation to prove the naysayers wrong.

So what if they can’t name four-fifths of their starting rotation? Who cares if they have no bona fide cleanup hitter to fill in while Nick Johnson recovers from a broken leg? Talk of a 100-loss season? Pish-posh.

Pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla., today, and that’s reason enough to get excited. Optimism is always high on the first day of spring training, and good vibes certainly will permeate the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium as players start trickling in.

Of course, that clubhouse is going to be plenty crowded, with 71 players (including an astounding 38 pitchers) vying for 25 roster spots. It’s quite possible new manager Manny Acta won’t know everyone by name before the first round of cuts take place in early March.

With so many jobs up for grabs and so many new faces in uniform, there is no shortage of story lines as camp opens. There are, however, five key questions that must be answered above all else before the Nationals head back north for Opening Day.

• Who’s in the rotation?

This might as well be the club’s official spring training motto because no development over the next six weeks is more important. Major league teams traditionally have three or four rotation spots locked up before camp even starts. The Nationals have one: de facto ace John Patterson, who himself is a question mark after making just eight starts last season because of a forearm injury.

Patterson’s status, though, is exponentially more secure than the dozen or so pitchers who will vie for the other four starting jobs. Washington essentially will be holding an open audition, with newcomers Tim Redding, Jerome Williams, Jason Simontacchi, Colby Lewis, Joel Hanrahan and Chris Michalak squaring off against holdovers Mike O’Connor, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann and Billy Traber and rookies Beltran Perez and Matt Chico.

All will be looked at equally by Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire, but if anyone from the bunch appears to enter on remotely solid footing, it would be Redding. The right-hander, who turned 29 yesterday, has made 101 major league appearances and went 10-14 with a 3.68 ERA for the Houston Astros in 2003. He has bounced around since, but he pitched well for the Chicago White Sox’s Class AAA squad a year ago, signed with the Nationals over the winter and now looks like the front-runner for the No. 2 spot in the rotation.

• When will Nick Johnson be able to play?

When Johnson broke his right femur in a nasty collision with teammate Austin Kearns in September, club officials expressed optimism he would be ready to return Opening Day. They since have amended that prediction, refusing to rule out the possibility of a full recovery by April 1 but cautioning that Johnson may need another month or more.

The Nationals don’t want to rush Johnson, who is entering the first year of his three-year, $16.5 million contract extension and is a vital piece to the organization’s long-term plan. But from a competitive standpoint, they desperately need the club’s most-consistent offensive player back in the lineup.

Johnson worked hard all winter to get his body back into shape, but he’s only now ready to resume baseball activities. Until team doctors see him on the field in action, they won’t really know how far away he is.

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