- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Two weeks from today, the Washington Nationals will don their gray road uniforms for the first time, take the field at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park and embark on a 162-game marathon.

Before they get there, though, they face a daunting sprint through the final days of spring training with no shortage of questions to be answered.

The Nationals came to Florida more than a month ago focused on figuring out five key issues before heading north. A re-examination of those issues today reveals that while the club has resolved some areas of concern, there still is much to be sorted out over the final 14 days of camp.

• The leadoff spot — From the moment he set foot inside Space Coast Stadium, Endy Chavez has been under pressure. The young center fielder arrived knowing he had to prove to the club he could get on base more consistently and ultimately score more runs than he had in the past or else risk losing his spot atop the starting lineup.

With two weeks to go until Opening Day, Nationals manager Frank Robinson admits “the jury’s still out” when it comes to Chavez’s progress.

The numbers back him up. Through the weekend, Chavez is batting just .174 (4-for-23). He has drawn only two walks to push his on-base percentage to .240 and has scored three runs.

The results may not look like much, but some club officials believe they have seen an improved Chavez at the plate this spring. He has worked hard to take more pitches, has attempted to bunt more and has stolen a team-high four bases.

Robinson, though, isn’t quite ready to declare Chavez his everyday leadoff man.

“I’m not going to make that commitment just yet,” Robinson said. “I don’t want him to get too cocky or get deflated. If he continues to go in the right direction the way he’s been going, we’ll have no problems.”

• No place for Sledge — The Nationals opened camp with four players (Chavez, Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and Nick Johnson) fighting for three spots (left field, center field, first base). Sledge appeared to be the odd man out then, and he remains the odd man out now.

As much as Robinson loves the young outfielder, who hit 15 homers last season as a rookie, he has no plans to bump Sledge ahead of any of the other three players.

Sledge still will get 300-plus at-bats this year. They just will have to come as a pinch-hitter and occasional starter.

• Getting healthy — The Nationals perhaps had no greater concern entering the spring than the status of four players coming back from injury-plagued 2004 seasons: pitchers Tony Armas Jr., Tomo Ohka and Zach Day and second baseman Jose Vidro.

With two weeks to go, it has become clear Armas, Ohka and Day all are back at full strength, a huge relief to the club. In fact, those three have combined with veteran right-handers Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loaiza to post a sparkling 2.97 ERA in 15 starts.

“That must have been the biggest development and the nicest thing so far in spring training,” Robinson said. “These pitchers who were question marks coming into spring training have passed their tests with flying colors so far.”

The same can’t be said of Vidro, who appears to have recovered from last September’s knee surgery but missed nine days with a hyperextended elbow and has played in only four exhibition games. Vidro, though, says he plans to play every day the rest of the spring starting today against the Marlins, and club officials are convinced he will be ready by Opening Day.

• The closer question — This one never really became a question. Robinson ensured as much by declaring on the first day of camp that he would start the season with a closer-by-committee and keep the pressure off 23-year-old Chad Cordero.

Cordero will share duties with right-handers Luis Ayala and Antonio Osuna and left-hander Joey Eischen, though there are few observers who don’t believe the job will be Cordero’s by midsummer. He certainly has pitched like a closer this spring, allowing one run on five hits in 61/3 innings and striking out eight.

• Trader Jim — Jim Bowden came to Washington with a reputation as a wheeler and dealer, and at times this spring the general manager has sounded like he’s absolutely itching to pull off a trade.

None has come yet, but there are growing signs something could happen soon. Much attention has been given to Bowden’s desire for a power-hitting outfielder like Cincinnati’s Wily Mo Pena, but a more likely move may involve the acquisition of a role player, specifically someone who can back up starting shortstop Cristian Guzman.

The Nationals have no true options behind Guzman. Utility infielder Jamey Carroll can play the position but is more suited for second base, and 19-year-old Ian Desmond is not ready to make the leap to the majors.

“It’s not a secret that we’ve been trying to find a backup shortstop,” Bowden said. “But we haven’t been able to find that piece in a deal that makes sense.”

Bowden would not reveal any details of trade discussions, but club sources said the Nationals have held talks with the Mariners, Padres, Braves and Mets. Potential targets include Seattle’s Pokey Reese (who is in danger of losing his job to Jose Lopez), San Diego’s Geoff Blum and Atlanta’s Wilson Betemit.

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