- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Shawn Hill is 25 years old and has made all of nine starts in his major league career. Yet upon scanning the clubhouse yesterday, the Washington Nationals right-hander noted he’s already one of the senior members of the pitching staff.

“You’ve got to meet new people every year, but the amount of new guys compared to returning guys … it’s almost like the returning guys are outnumbered this year,” Hill said. “It’s like going to a new high school.”

A very large high school.

Nationals pitchers and catchers reported to spring training yesterday and then proceeded to spend most of the morning introducing themselves to the largest staff in the majors. There are a staggering 38 pitchers on the spring roster, only eight of which were in Washington’s major league camp a year ago.

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And while some of those pitchers are minor leaguers with virtually no chance of making the Opening Day roster, there are far more who will be given realistic shots over the next six weeks. That’s especially true in a wide-open starting rotation, with at least 10 guys in the running for four open slots behind de facto ace John Patterson.

“Everybody’s going to be getting a fair shot,” manager Manny Acta said.

But are there enough hours of daylight and enough innings in exhibition games for Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire to get a look at everyone? They insist there will be. Taking advantage of split-squad games, early morning “B” games and minor league camp, the Nationals will squeeze as much as they can out of these pitchers, hoping a smaller group of legitimate contenders emerges from the pack within the first few weeks.

And anyone who seriously wants to make a case for himself better do it quickly.

“You’re trying to impress [a] staff that hasn’t seen you pitch and maybe open their eyes into taking you,” St. Claire said. “These guys should be coming in here ready to roll. They’ve got to be, because they have to impress us. Every outing is very important to them.”

“There’s so many guys, you can’t take it for granted that you’ll have five, six weeks to prove yourself,” Hill said. “It might be over in two weeks.”

Making matters more complicated, there are no real frontrunners for the four rotation spots behind Patterson. Everyone comes in on equal footing, though the handful of pitchers in camp with major-league experience do have a slight leg up on the rest.

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