- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | There was no bold proclamation about his team “being ready to win more games than we lose” as there was a year ago at this time. There were no ultimatums given to members of the coaching staff or to players if they don’t perform up to a certain standard.

And there certainly was no mention of the prospect formerly known as Esmailyn Gonzalez or any repercussions stemming from the scandal involving him, not after team president Stan Kasten instructed all club employees not to discuss it.

Instead, as Jim Bowden stood in foul territory on a spring training practice field Sunday morning, the Washington Nationals general manager offered a cautious-yet-optimistic view of his team as it prepares for the 2009 season.

“I think it’s improved a lot,” Bowden said in his first public comments of the spring. “We’ve got a lot more depth than we had before. Obviously, we appear a lot healthier than we were last year, which is a good sign. But it’s still early.”

Indeed, Bowden hesitated to draw any significant conclusions about the Nationals with six weeks of camp still to go before Opening Day, April 6 at the Florida Marlins.

He instead addressed a number of issues facing his club, from Odalis Perez’s camp holdout to the surplus of outfielders and first basemen on his roster to the possibility he will pursue more free agents over the course of the spring.

- Perez still hasn’t reported, and he hasn’t returned calls from Bowden, manager Manny Acta or his agent.

Sunday was the mandatory reporting date for all players in major league camps, and Perez was nowhere to be found. The 31-year-old left-hander presumably remains in his native Dominican Republic, holding out for a better deal than the nonguaranteed, $850,000 contract he agreed to Feb. 5.

The Nationals are authorized, per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, to discipline Perez for not reporting on time. But Bowden suggested there won’t be any punishment until someone from the club actually can get a hold of the pitcher.

“We’re taking the position, obviously, that we have an agreement with the player, and we’re expecting the player to honor the agreement,” he said. “But we’d like to talk to him first. So we’re going to wait until he calls us back and then address the other options at that point.”

Asked whether Perez showed any sign of hesitancy at the time the deal was agreed to, Bowden replied: “He gave his agent authority to close the deal, and the agent signed off on his behalf and agreed to the deal. And we’re expecting him to honor it. He doesn’t have to like it. But if he agreed to it, he has to honor it.”

Perez did not respond to a call seeking comment.

- Washington’s excess of outfielders and first basemen should be resolved by Opening Day, either by trades or injuries.

With at least eight players staking a claim to four spots in the starting lineup - Adam Dunn, Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns, Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Josh Willingham, Willie Harris, Wily Mo Pena - something eventually will have to give.

The Nationals are most likely to offer up Johnson and Kearns to interested trade partners, but Bowden wants to be careful not to leave himself unprepared for the inevitable injuries that plague every club.

“You always want depth, not only for trades but also to protect yourself from injuries,” he said. “We all saw what happened last year when we had injuries and we didn’t have the depth to handle it. We lost 102 games. So this year, if we have injuries, we feel we have major league players that can step up and can perform.”

- Despite an unusually large number of players still on the open market, the Nationals are unlikely to pursue any more free agents.

Dunn’s signing earlier this month brought Washington’s 2009 payroll up to about $58 million. That’s $4 million higher than last year’s Opening Day payroll, and Bowden said ownership hasn’t approved a larger budget.

“If we add anybody, I think we’d need to reduce payroll in order to fit more in,” he said.

Asked whether veteran bullpen help would be his first target if allowed to sign any more players, Bowden said, “Pitching is always our first priority.”

- The Nationals understand the importance of this year’s amateur draft.

Washington holds the No. 1 and No. 10 overall picks in the June draft, a product of finishing with baseball’s worst record last season and failing to sign No. 9 pick Aaron Crow last summer.

Bowden’s inability to close a deal with Crow, who demanded at least $500,000 more than the Nationals were willing to offer at the Aug. 15 deadline, left some wondering whether the club would have trouble signing this year’s No. 1 pick (presumed to be San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who will be represented by agent Scott Boras).

“We have a great relationship with Scott,” Bowden said. “Sometimes it takes longer than you want [to get a deal done]. Sometimes it takes until midnight on Aug. 15. But we’re pretty confident we’ll be able to sign our pick.”