- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young are making it a point to stay friendly, even less than two weeks from a day both have known was coming since the start of spring training.

As Johnson was fielding questions at his locker Monday about the Washington Nationals’ back-and-forth competition at first base, Young strolled by, stopped and diverted the subject in his typically colorful way.

“Meanwhile, we’ve got Cristian Guzman and Felipe [Lopez] fighting for short. We’ve got Bret Boone and [Ronnie] Belliard at second. Why is this one so important?” he wondered aloud as the two men laughed and exchanged high fives before Young continued toward his locker, singing a line from Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About.”

Yet as chummy as the two are now, they know in 11 days one of them will be on the bench. There’s no getting around that.

And considering what they have been through to get back on the field — Young was released by Detroit in 2006 and battled alcoholism, depression and diabetes before becoming the National League’s 2007 comeback player of the year, while Johnson broke his leg in September 2006 and missed last season — neither is all that interested in being off it.

“I just want to play every day. Let’s leave it at that,” Johnson said. “If it’s here, great. If it’s not, that’s part of the game.”

Throw in the fact that the two will make a combined $10.5 million in 2008 — or roughly 18 percent of the Nationals’ committed salaries — and it’s clear the club has a conundrum at first base. Or to put it in the terms of Young’s musical selection, a little mystery to figure out.

Since each has played more than 140 games in a season just once since 2003, it makes sense to keep one as an insurance policy for the other. Both Young and Johnson stopped short of saying they would accept a backup role, although that may be because a starter hasn’t been named yet.

If Washington were to try to move one of the two, Johnson likely would command more in return because he is five years younger. He also would become a free agent in 2010; the team has a $6 million nonguaranteed option on Young for the 2010 season that becomes guaranteed if he gets 500 plate appearances in 2009 or a combined 900 plate appearances in 2008 and 2009.

But Johnson probably has the inside track to starting. He enjoyed the best season of his career in 2006, hitting .290 with 23 homers and 77 RBI, and the Nationals are confident enough in his rehab to think he can put up that kind of production again. He was 3-for-3 with an RBI against Detroit yesterday.

“He’s already played back-to-back games, no complaints, no nothing,” manager Manny Acta said. “He’s played cold weather, hot weather, full game, half game, DH. He’s ready to go.”

Young hit .320 in 2007, the first time he had been above .300 since 2001. He missed the first two weeks of games with a pulled muscle in his left side but has hit .375 since coming over to major league camp March 13, including going 2-for-4 against the Tigers.

Still, there are concerns about Young’s physical shape — he reported weighing nearly 300 pounds — and whether he will be able to withstand the rigors of a 162-game season.

If he doesn’t win the starting job, there’s no question Young would be a valuable bat off the bench. He hit over .300 against both lefties and righties last year, and the switch-hitter excels at going to the opposite field.

The only question is whether Young would welcome that kind of a role.

“For the last 12 years in the big leagues, I’ve been a starter,” he said.

Neither player likely will know who’s starting until next week. Acta said Sunday the first baseman would be announced “about a day before the season starts.”

For now, they’re doing their best to ignore the uncertainty, even as they know one of them won’t get what he wants.

“We’re friends. We don’t control our destiny,” Young said. “That’s [general manager] Jim Bowden’s decision. If he starts and I don’t, I’m happy for him. I’m going to help the team win and vice versa. But we both want to start, plain and simple.”

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