- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2005

VIERA, Fla. - Single-game tickets have yet to go on sale, the grass hasn’t been planted at RFK Stadium, there’s no television or radio deal in place and only a handful of players have made public appearances in their new hometown.

None of that matters today, because the four words Washington baseball fans have been waiting 34 years to hear will at long last be uttered in this tiny, planned community 900 miles south of the nation’s capital.

Pitchers and catchers report.

No, this isn’t the Washington Nationals’ official debut. Depending on your point of view, that historic moment will take place next Tuesday when the former Montreal Expos hold their first full-squad workout, March[ThSp]2 when they play their first exhibition game, April 4 when they open the regular season in Philadelphia or April 14 when President Bush throws out the first pitch at the home opener against Arizona at RFK.

Make no mistake, though: Today is when it all begins. The Nationals are no longer a figment of your imagination. They are real, and for proof one needed only to look inside the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium yesterday, where a bright red Nationals batting practice jersey (with the interlocking “DC” logo emblazoned on the chest) hung inside every one of the 59 lockers.

Today the 28 pitchers and six catchers invited to camp will report and try on those jerseys. They’ll take physicals tomorrow, and on Thursday will step outside to hold their first workout.

And not a moment too soon for some former Expos, who have anticipated this day for some time.

“It’s been four months since we last played,” reliever Chad Cordero said. “I just can’t wait to get out there and start playing and facing hitters.”

The team that begins assembling this morning looks markedly different from the one that left Montreal last October - and not just because of the new name on the jersey. The Nationals were one of the majors’ most active clubs this winter, with interim general manager Jim Bowden overhauling a roster that lost 95 games a year ago and finished last in the National League East.

The club’s returning stars (Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson, Livan Hernandez and Brian Schneider) now have the likes of Jose Guillen, Vinny Castilla, Cristian Guzman and Esteban Loaiza alongside. This is the core group Bowden and manager Frank Robinson will have to build an entire team around, and both are optimistic.

“We can’t wait,” Bowden said. “We still have a lot of planning and preparing to do. You never have enough time, and I didn’t start until Nov.[ThSp]2, so we’re a little behind. But I’m very excited about it.”

Working under a strict, $50[ThSp]million budget, Bowden wasn’t able to fill all his offseason needs. Washington is still without the big-name starting pitcher it desired, and the club’s bench is only slightly improved from a year ago.

There are plenty of on-field issues that must resolve themselves over the next seven weeks. Aside from the aforementioned core players, plus a couple of other returning veterans, most jobs are open.

And there are plenty of guys in camp ready to make their case for one of the 25 Opening Day roster spots.

“I think competition allows people to play at their highest level,” Bowden said. “We have a lot of competition right now, not only for starting jobs but for bench positions as well. And the more competition you have, the more choices you have, the better chance you have of getting better players.”

Perhaps no camp competition will be more intriguing than the four-player/three-position quandary Robinson is facing. The manager needs to select a first baseman, left fielder and center fielder from a pool of Wilkerson, Nick Johnson, Endy Chavez and Terrmel Sledge, with an array of combinations possible.

Johnson likely is the key to the equation. A burgeoning offensive star with the New York Yankees three years ago, the 26-year-old first baseman has been plagued by injuries and has yet to live up to his potential.

If healthy and productive, Johnson (who missed 87 games because of injury in 2004) will be the regular first baseman, allowing Wilkerson to remain in his more natural outfield position. If the club isn’t satisfied with Johnson for some reason, Wilkerson will have to move in from the outfield to play first, opening up a spot for Sledge or Chavez.

Sledge is coming off an impressive rookie season (15 homers, 62 RBI) but remains highly unproven. Chavez has been the club’s regular center fielder for two seasons, but his lack of plate discipline could ultimately cost him his job.

And if none of those options pan out, there’s always the possibility of a camp surprise, someone like recently acquired Alex Escobar, aging veteran Jeffrey Hammonds, unproven J.J. Davis or top prospect Ryan Church.

“The one thing going in is, we know Wilkerson and Guillen are coming off extremely good years,” Bowden said. “Besides that, we didn’t have real great seasons from anyone. We have guys with good potential like Nick Johnson, Terrmel Sledge, Endy Chavez, and we have guys who have potential and have never put it together like J.J. Davis and Alex Escobar.

“So we’re going to continue to try to stockpile as many young players who have potential and hope that the more we bring in, the better chance we have of one of them becoming a star-caliber player.”

The Nationals don’t have quite as many options when it comes to their starting rotation. In fact, assuming everyone remains healthy, all five spots appear to be locked up, with Hernandez and Loaiza followed by right-handers Tony Armas Jr., Tomo Ohka and Zach Day.

History, however, does not bode well for all five pitchers staying healthy. Armas, Ohka and Day spent considerable time on the disabled list last year, and all must prove this spring they are back to 100 percent.

Even back in Washington, everyone knows how important a healthy pitching staff is.

“The key issue for us is keeping our young starters healthy,” club president Tony Tavares said. “If we stay healthy, we’ll be OK.”

On paper, the Nationals appear to be an improved bunch. Whether they are improved enough to be competitive in the immensely deep NL East remains to be seen.

“I think talent-wise, we’re there,” Day said. “And that’s all you can really look at. We’ve got the talent to do it. Now we have to go out on the field and prove it.”

For thousands of long-suffering fans back home, the fact that a Washington baseball team will be assembled on a field at all starting today is reason enough for jubilation.

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