- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

It would seem, based on most of the attention to the Washington Nationals this year, that the biggest problem they face is whether they can persuade left fielder Alfonso Soriano to stay beyond this season.

Realistically, though, the problem that may draw the most attention in the coming weeks and throughout the offseason is the Nationals keystone combo, whoever that will be.

It will be an uphill battle to sign Soriano, who likely will be the highest-priced free agent on the market this year. But either they do or they don’t, and if they don’t, the franchise winds up with two draft picks and has RBI machine Kory Casto waiting in the wings at Harrisburg. At least with this problem the club has some control and reasonable options.

At second base and shortstop, though, the Nationals have what could be two anchors weighing down their goal of payroll flexibility: second baseman Jose Vidro, just coming back from another injury, and, yes, the not-so-feared shortstop, Cristian Guzman, who is rehabilitating his right shoulder after surgery in May.

Vidro is in an unfortunate situation. More than two years ago, when he was still considered an effective second baseman who could hit with power, he signed a four-year, $30 million contract extension with the then-Montreal Expos and was praised for his commitment to a franchise with an uncertain future.

Now he has a .300 average but is a singles-hitting second baseman with limited range and three straight seasons of stints on the disabled list. Yet he is owed $15 million over the next two years.

Then you have Guzman, who also presents an unfortunate situation. When he hit .219 last year he became the target of scorn by Nats fans, who saw an underachieving player with a four-year, $16 million contract.

Now he is an underachieving shortstop who will be coming back from shoulder surgery, who was paid $4 million this year and is still owed $8 million for the next two seasons by the Nationals.

That’s $23 million in salary locked up in players who no one would really like to see out there next year. Add in newly acquired shortstop Felipe Lopez, who appears to be a flawed player but a better option than either Guzman at short or Vidro at second, and you have a problem that is harder to fix than the uncertainty over Soriano.

One scenario is to live with the lesser financial burden by playing Guzman at short and hoping he can at least come closer to the level of play he displayed in Minnesota before coming to the Nationals. Then the club could move Lopez to second, where his throwing problems may not be as severe.

In order to do that, though, another team would have to willing to take Vidro and his $15 million contract. That seems like a tough sell, and for that to happen realistically, it would appear the Nationals still would have to be on the hook for a good portion of his paycheck for the next two years.

The other option, though, isn’t any easier to pull off — find someone willing to take on Guzman’s $8 million over the next two years. If that somehow happened, the Nationals would no doubt have to pay some of Guzman’s salary.

If Guzman were the one to leave, Lopez would remain at short and the team still would carry Vidro, a second baseman who may be making more money than anyone on the roster next year and who can’t hit or play like the highest-paid player or stay healthy.

Plus a wild card has at least temporarily emerged in Bernie Castro, who has stolen 357 bases in six minor league seasons with the Yankees, Padres and Orioles organizations and is at least worth a look.

It would appear Guzman, if healthy, is the lesser of the two evils unless general manager Jim Bowden can come up with a way to wipe off the biggest blemish of his tenure here in Washington — Guzman’s contract — and not just work a reasonable trade for Vidro, but find a way to unload Guzman as well without bearing too much of a financial burden.

Someone get the Cincinnati Reds on the phone, quick.

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