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Nats still crowded in right

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

JUPITER, Fla. | The Washington Nationals played a Grapefruit League game Monday for the 23rd time this spring. They reported to Space Coast Stadium 11 days before the exhibition season even began.

It has been a long spring, and the combination of weariness over another bus ride down Interstate 95 and eagerness for the regular season to start is evident on players' faces.

So, too, is the realization that time is running out for the dozen or so players still battling for perhaps half as many available spots on the Opening Day roster.

"You try not to think about that stuff," one Nationals player on the bubble said. "Most of it is out of your hands by now anyways. The best you can do is to just try to make the decision for them."

For the men who will make those final roster decisions - manager Manny Acta, acting general manager Mike Rizzo and team president Stan Kasten - every last impression matters. Opening Day is two weeks away.

"There's still a lot of competition for a lot of spots, and that is a good thing," Rizzo said. "I think camp has gone well. I think the players have been performing well, and it's good and refreshing to be battling for spots instead of kind of reaching for options."

The competition is especially crowded in Washington's outfield, where no fewer than seven players are trying to stake their claim to three starting jobs and one spot (maybe two) on the bench.

Rizzo insisted Monday that nothing is settled in the outfield at this point. But barring any unforeseen developments, Adam Dunn will be in left field and Lastings Milledge will be in center. Acta named Milledge his leadoff hitter Sunday, ensuring his job. Dunn is due back in camp Tuesday following Team USA duty in the World Baseball Classic and won't waste much time before rejoining the lineup.

That leaves the right-field spot up for grabs, with Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns and perhaps Josh Willingham trying to win the job. Conventional wisdom has said the Nationals won't open the season with all three on the roster, and indeed Rizzo has been actively shopping Kearns and to a lesser extent Willingham.

But with interest low at this point - especially in Kearns, who makes $8 million this season - Washington faces the possibility of heading north in two weeks with all of the outfielders on the club.

"We're not going to make a bad baseball trade just to alleviate one of the outfielders," Rizzo said.

If the Nationals can't strike a deal before Opening Day, Acta faces the dilemma of naming a starting right fielder and then convincing the other players they still can be valuable coming off the bench.

"If it happens that we don't make any moves, then three are going to go play outfield and two or three are going to sit on the bench - as simple as that," Acta said.

If only it were that simple. If faced with that situation, Acta will have to decide what matters most in selecting a starting right fielder. Does he go with the most talented player of the group in Dukes despite his inexperience and past issues? Does he go with Kearns, the hard-working pro coming off a miserable season? Or does he go with one of the club's key offseason acquisitions in Willingham, who has a solid track record?

Based on spring stats alone, the job should be Kearns'. After going 1-for-3 Monday, he maintained his .333 spring batting average to go with two homers and a team-best seven RBI. Dukes is hitting .313 with one homer and four RBI but a team-high 11 strikeouts. Willingham is hitting .233 with two homers and four RBI.

There is one possible alternate solution, which would involve Acta rotating players in and out of the lineup in an attempt to spread around at-bats. Barring a trade, that might be the manager's final solution.

Until then, the affected players will keep plugging along, hoping to make a final impression while at the same time not stressing too much over a fate that is mostly out of their hands.

"I'm sure that if all of us are here, yeah, there's going to be some moving around probably," Kearns said. "But we'll see what happens."