- The Washington Times - Friday, March 4, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — If Wednesday’s exhibition opener was any indication, the Washington Nationals could have the makings of a formidable regular lineup this season.

The starting eight manager Frank Robinson sent out against the New York Mets featured speed at the top, power in the middle and even solid production at the back end.

“Does it match up with other teams in our [East] division or in the National League? Maybe not,” Robinson said yesterday. “But it’s still a vast improvement, I think, over what we had last year. And from top to bottom, it may be the best lineup we’ve had in the three years I’ve been here.”

There is a catch, though. The heart of the Nationals’ order — Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, Brad Wilkerson and Vinny Castilla — won’t have a chance to drive in very many runs if the guys hitting ahead of them don’t get on base.

And that’s what has some club officials wondering whether this lineup is improved enough to significantly outperform a Montreal Expos offense that last year ranked 14th in the NL in batting average (.249) and runs scored (635) and 15th in on-base percentage (.313) and slugging percentage (.392).

“I’m looking to score more runs, in any way,” interim general manager Jim Bowden said. “This team didn’t score runs last year. We have a pitching staff that should be able to keep us in games. If we can score enough runs, we’ll win a lot more games.”

Much has been made this spring of leadoff hitter Endy Chavez’s mission to get on base more often and score more runs. The 27-year-old center fielder has vowed to shorten his stride and work the count, but several observers say Chavez looks the same in the batter’s box this spring as he always has. In Wednesday’s opener, he went 0-for-2, seeing a total of eight pitches.

“I want to see adjustments there,” one club official said. “I haven’t seen them.”

Chavez isn’t the only one being closely monitored. If Robinson sticks with Wednesday’s lineup over the long haul, the pressure also will be on No. 2 hitter Cristian Guzman, who must show improvements at the plate. A slick-fielding shortstop with good speed, Guzman nevertheless brought a career .266 average and .303 on-base percentage with him from Minnesota.

For the Nationals’ projected lineup to have any success, Chavez and Guzman will have to mature as hitters.

“People focus on who’s hitting behind who in a lineup. I think the more important thing is who’s hitting in front of you,” Robinson said. “The key is the top of the lineup. If we’re going to score runs and be consistent, those two guys — or whomever is hitting up there — have to get on base on a consistent-type basis.”

And if they don’t? That’s where the Nationals’ options start to run thin.

The only other proven leadoff hitter on the roster is Wilkerson, who was used in that role 107 times last year and reached base at an impressive .382 clip. But Wilkerson’s season-ending RBI total (67) was paltry considering his 32 homers and 39 doubles, which explains why the club strongly prefers him in the middle of the order.

There are few other intriguing possibilities in camp. Former Mets uber-prospect Alex Escobar and Rule 5 pickup Tyrell Godwin can play center field and could lead off, but both are long shots.

Some in the organization would like to see second-year slugger Terrmel Sledge start in left field, with Wilkerson moving to center. Robinson even went so far as to bat Sledge leadoff in yesterday’s game against Bethune-Cookman College, but that appears to have been a one-time occurrence.

“I’m willing to try almost anything to see what makes sense,” Robinson said. “But he’s not auditioning for the leadoff spot.”

Bowden has made it no secret he’s searching for more offense, and there has been plenty of talk about the GM pulling off a trade before the end of spring training.

Club officials say a deal is unlikely, though, unless Bowden is willing to give up a quality starting pitcher — something he’s already in short supply of.

Notes — Designated hitter Carlos Baerga was a late scratch from yesterday’s lineup. The veteran infielder was excused by the club to attend to a personal matter. J.J. Davis replaced Baerga in the Nationals’ lineup, batting fifth. … Infielder Tony Blanco suffered a slight strain of his right rotator cuff during Wednesday’s game. His status is day-to-day.

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