The mere fact Mike O'Connor made 20 starts for the Washington Nationals last season would appear to give the left-hander a leg up on the 10 or so other pitchers in the mix for a rotation spot this spring.
O'Connor, though, may actually find himself on the sideline when pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla., in three weeks. Still recovering from offseason elbow surgery, the 26-year-old hasn't resumed throwing yet and might not be ready for Opening Day on April 2.
Speaking yesterday at Kimball Elementary School in Southeast -- the first stop on the Nationals' week-long caravan through the region -- O'Connor said he expects to be cleared to throw in the next week or two before he departs for spring training. He said his arm feels great since orthopedic specialist James Andrews repaired a cartilage defect in his left elbow Nov. 7, but he doesn't know how long it will take to get his arm back into shape.
"All I'm worried about is making sure that when I do come back, I'm 100 percent," O'Connor said. "I don't want to set a date, to say I'm going to be ready Opening Day and then [realize] I can't make it. I just want to get healthy as soon as I can and then go from there."
Though his rookie numbers (3-8 with a 4.80 ERA) were hardly spectacular, O'Connor has a better standing with the Nationals heading into 2007 than most of the starting pitchers who were signed this winter to compete for four open rotation spots.
If healthy, O'Connor arguably could be Washington's second-best starter, behind ace John Patterson. But manager Manny Acta said he's not counting on the Ellicott City native to be ready for Opening Day and thus will focus most of his attention this spring on the gaggle of other starters in the running for jobs.
"We're going to take our time with him," Acta said. "He pitched well enough for this ballclub last year that he doesn't need to come out there and rush and try to impress anybody. ... Mike is hurt, so he's out of it until he comes back."
Note -- The Nationals came to terms yesterday on a one-year, $3.9 million contract with Felipe Lopez. After exchanging arbitration figures a week ago, with the infielder asking for $4.1 million and the club offering $3.7 million, the two sides met right in the middle.
Lopez, who is making the full-time move from shortstop to second base, received a $1.2 million raise after hitting .274 with 11 homers, 52 RBI and 44 stolen bases last season.
Four other arbitration-eligible players remain unsigned: Patterson, closer Chad Cordero and outfielders Austin Kearns and Alex Escobar.