- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2005

Frank Robinson figures the best offseason destination for Ryan Zimmerman is Arizona’s fall developmental league.

“You are out there to work on things,” the Nationals manager said. “You are out there to work on and improve your skills. I think it would be good for him.”

OK, but where do you send the Nationals’ infield full of question marks — Vinny Castilla, Cristian Guzman, Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson?

Lourdes?

The Nats’ flirtation with the postseason officially ended yesterday with a 6-5 loss to the New York Mets at RFK Stadium, marking the beginning of an examination of the franchise’s immediate future.

It will be difficult since the team still doesn’t have an owner, and it appears one will not be selected until Major League Baseball can exhume the body of Bob Short and prop him up like El Cid.

So the Nationals, as currently constituted, are going to have to start making decisions about next year.

There are difficult choices — particularly in the infield — to make if this team wants to be competitive again.

The Nationals overachieved this season, but maybe — after the long slide to the end of the season — not by much. But expections of better than a .500 record at the beginning of the season were delusional. Fun, but delusional.

Don’t get caught up in the fact that this team was 19 games over .500 before the All-Star break. That is one of the beauties of baseball: For the most part, teams find their level over 162 games.

If the Nationals went into next season with the same roster, they might have a hard time duplicating their overachieving effort.

Why? For starters, their infield consists of players who are broken down, mentally as well as physically.

At third base, Castilla was hampered by knee problems during the season. Next season, he’ll be 38, and there’s little reason to believe it won’t happen again.

At second, Vidro was never healthy after coming back from knee surgery in September of last season, playing in just 85 games. Maybe another offseason of rest will allow him to run without limping or give him some range in the field, but that’s a huge maybe.

At first base, Johnson can’t stay healthy for an entire season. He has spent time on the disabled list in each of his five full seasons with wrist bruises, hand fractures, back strains, a fractured cheekbone and heel contusions.

Maybe Johnson should attend a Cal Ripken baseball clinic in Aberdeen, Md., to figure out how to play a whole season.

But Guzman hasn’t been injured — which means the shortstop’s .210 batting average is beyond explanation. He’s batted .317 since Aug.31, which is explainable: When rosters expand, young pitchers pitch and teams eliminated from contention prepare for next season, and great September hitters are made.

That’s the 2006 Nationals infield — unless tough decisions are made — and it’s an expensive foursome.

Castilla will be in the second year of a two-year, $6.2million contract. Guzman will be in the second year of a four-year, $16.8million deal. And Vidro will be in the second year of a four-year, $30million contract.

The Nationals have some latitude only with Johnson, who is arbitration eligible. They likely will tender him an offer despite his emergency room resume.

Otherwise, the Nats have $39million committed to three players who either can’t play on a regular basis — Castilla and Vidro — or shouldn’t be allowed to (Guzman).

Rookie Ryan Zimmerman is the real deal and has to play next year. So do you play him at third and eat Castilla’s contract?

And what about Guzman? Even if he does play better, his best is hardly worth celebrating.

And will they have to live with Vidro, a second baseman with limited speed and range, making more money than any other position player on the team?

Then again, by the time the Nationals have an owner to worry about such things, maybe they will be done with Guzman’s and Vidro’s contracts. And the 2009 Nationals infield should be much improved.


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