- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

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VIERA, Fla. — John Patterson was in Arizona on Monday, explaining to three arbitration judges why he deserved to make $1.85 million this season. The Washington Nationals right-hander based this on his breakthrough 2005 season, when he posted the ninth-best ERA and tied for the 10th-most strikeouts in the National League.

Across the table sat general manager Jim Bowden, who argued Patterson’s salary should be only $850,000, citing the pitcher’s track record of inconsistency and the fact he made only eight starts last season because of a forearm injury.

Fast-forward two days and 3,000 miles east to Space Coast Stadium, where yesterday Bowden lauded Patterson as the leader of his club’s pitching staff and the 29-year-old spoke positively about the arbitration experience (even though he lost the case).

“To their credit, they didn’t get nasty with it,” Patterson said. “Of course, they had to defend their side, and they had to do a good job, and they had to pick apart my career and my season in ‘05. Yeah, that’s hard to sit there and listen to. But at the same time, it probably could have been a lot worse, and it wasn’t. So I give them credit for that.”

Patterson didn’t get his $1.85 million, but he did nearly double his 2006 salary, and he will be the highest-paid member of the Nationals’ 2007 rotation. Of course, at the moment, he’s the only known member of that rotation, making him perhaps the most important player in camp this spring.

Bowden knows that all too well.

“John Patterson is a potential No. 1 or No. 2 starter,” the general manager said. “There’s no one more than [manager] Manny Acta and myself that wants to see John Patterson stay healthy for an entire year, be able to start 30 to 34 games and pitch to his potential. His potential is a 15- to 20-game winner and an ERA title winner.”

Baseball people have been talking about Patterson’s potential for years, from the day the Montreal Expos made him the fifth pick overall of the 1996 draft. But it wasn’t until 2005 that Patterson finally showed a prolonged glimpse of that potential, and now he’s forced to start all over again after having arm surgery last summer.

That’s not an ideal scenario for the presumptive ace of a major league pitching staff, but the Nationals are trying to downplay Patterson’s new role with the club and simply emphasize his need to perform on the mound.

“That’s a tough word to drop on John: Ace,” Acta said. “He’s just the only guy who has a spot in our rotation because of his potential and what he’s done before. You drop that name on guys who have won 20 games and stuff like that. I just want the kid to be healthy and get out there and give us 30 to 35 starts and get his potential to come out.”

Patterson, who has surpassed 20 starts and 100 innings only once in his career (2005), concurs and says he’s entering the season with a couple of simple goals in mind.

“Thirty starts, 200 innings, and everything else will take care of itself,” he said.

If Patterson reaches those marks, he will have kept himself healthy and productive for a full season, something he couldn’t do a year ago. He first noticed a twinge in his right forearm last spring, pitched through it for a while before going on the disabled list in late April, tried to come back in late July and then ultimately was shut down to undergo surgery to repair an impinged nerve that was causing the discomfort all along.

Patterson says he has felt great since and had no problems going through his usual offseason throwing regimen. Team officials will watch him closely this spring, but all accounts say the injury is a thing of the past and there’s little question he will start Opening Day against the Florida Marlins.

“I have no doubts in my mind on what my health is or how I feel,” he said. “I’ve put myself on the right track to be firing on all cylinders on April 2.”

With power, though, comes responsibility, and Patterson finds himself with a new role in the Washington clubhouse as a leader and example for others. It’s not necessarily a role that fits his reticent personality, but those who know him say he can grow into the position.

“He’s always been real tough-minded,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “You don’t see too much stuff faze him. There’s no doubt he has the mental capacity to be an ace and leader of your staff. … I think he’ll do a great job.”

Patterson insists he’s up to the challenge.

“That’s my job this year,” he said. “That’s not pressure. That is my job.”

And if he does his job well, he might find himself making a stronger argument for a major salary boost via arbitration next spring.

“A year from now, whether he signs a contract or arbitrates, I certainly hope he gets his number next year,” Bowden said. “[That would mean] he has a healthy, successful year.”

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