- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

From seemingly the moment his club held its first spring workout, Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden has made no secret of his desire to add a big bat to his lineup. And rarely has a day gone by without Bowden talking to one of his fellow GMs about trading for a slugger.

His primary targets are well known: Toronto’s Vernon Wells, Colorado’s Preston Wilson, Florida’s Juan Encarnacion, Cincinnati’s Wily Mo Pena. All are power-hitting outfielders with the potential to bolster a Nationals offense that ranks 15th of 16 National League clubs in runs scored.

And all are players who would come at a sizable cost in salary and the young talent Washington would have to deal for them.

There is another option, though, one that wouldn’t cost Bowden an extra dime or a player out of his farm system.

What if the big bat Bowden seeks has been in front of him all along, in the combined form of outfielders Ryan Church and Marlon Byrd, plus second baseman Jose Vidro (who is nearly ready to return from the disabled list)?

“I’ve said before, I’d like to have another bat,” Bowden said. “But if that other bat is already here, that’s great. If that other bat is Ryan Church, that’s great. If it’s Marlon Byrd, that’s great. If it’s a combination of the two, that’s great.

“Vidro will be another bat. He will be one of the solutions.”

Put those three productive hitters into the Nationals’ lineup, and manager Frank Robinson suddenly has the makings of a legitimate attack at his disposal.

Vidro is a career .304 hitter and a three-time All-Star who was well on his way to another stellar season when he tore a tendon in his left ankle May4. Church has been one of the majors’ hottest hitters for more than a month now, batting .386 with 23 RBI over his last 38 games to thrust himself into National League Rookie of the Year contention. Byrd has hit .296 with 10 RBI in 28 games since his trade to Washington from Philadelphia.

Who needs a .268 hitter making $12.5million (Wilson) when you’re getting more production for less money from three players already on your roster?

Church’s speedy ascension has been the most pleasant surprise. The 26-year-old left fielder was an afterthought this spring, pegged for another season at Class AAA. But he made the Opening Day roster and has since burst onto the scene, both with his bat and his glove. He saved the Nationals’ 5-4 win in Pittsburgh Wednesday with a highlight-reel catch at the fence.

Church’s inspired play has made it tough for Byrd to crack the lineup, but the versatile outfielder has been impressive and at worst gives Robinson a dangerous weapon off the bench.

Vidro’s return from the DL, expected in the next 10 days or so, is the most significant addition of them all. It’s almost the equivalent of a major trade.

“No, it would be better,” Robinson said. “You couldn’t go get Jose Vidro in a trade.”

His extended absence has gone unnoticed at times because the Nationals have played so well, but Washington has sorely missed the presence of its best all-around player.

“This is one of our leaders, one of our top players on this team,” Bowden said. “He changes the complexion of our offense. Guys around him have better pitches to hit. This is a special bat. I don’t think people realize how good he is.”

Vidro’s addition, most likely as Robinson’s No.2 hitter, should have a residual effect. Suddenly, opposing pitchers will be facing a Nationals lineup that boasts Brad Wilkerson, Vidro, Jose Guillen, Nick Johnson and Vinny Castilla in the first five spots.

“Guillen has not had a lot of balls to hit,” Bowden said. “After those first six weeks, they started not throwing to him. If you put Vidro in there with Guillen and Johnson and Castilla, all of a sudden, everyone gets better pitches.”

So where does that leave Bowden heading into next month’s trade deadline? Perhaps in the market not for a bat but for an arm.

The Nationals are in first place in the NL East by virtue of their pitching staff, but cracks are beginning to show. Esteban Loaiza and John Patterson have dealt with lingering back injuries. Tony Armas Jr. has not returned to his pre-shoulder surgery form. And Ryan Drese, despite his fabulous debut last week in Anaheim, still owns a 6.14 ERA in 14 starts between the Nationals and Rangers.

Bowden may be tempted to acquire another starter sometime in the next month, assuming he gets the expected approval from club president Tony Tavares (who gets his approval from Major League Baseball) to increase payroll.

“Our first priority is pitching, pitching, pitching,” Bowden said. “We have an unbelievable amount of injuries, as we all know. But there’s only so many injuries you can take before it starts affecting you. Pitching’s our priority.”


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