- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

It’s been easy to overlook, what with so much talk all winter about stadium leases and prospective owners and free agents turned off by all the uncertainty, but lest anyone forget the Washington Nationals are a baseball club.

As much as it has appeared at times that this franchise’s biggest names are the likes of Cropp, DuPuy and Williams, that’s really not the case. Robinson, Hernandez and Vidro have much more say in the Nationals’ success than those suits do.

Which is why Washington baseball fans will be overjoyed tomorrow when they hear the following four sweet, simple words: Pitchers and catchers report.

Yes, while the last vestiges of snow are melting away across the region, spring training officially starts 900 miles down the coast in Viera, Fla. Instead of stories about late-night city council meetings, condescending memos from Major League Baseball and Alfonso Soriano refusing to play the outfield, you now get stories about early-morning batting practices, cheerful banter from teammates … and Alfonso Soriano refusing to play the outfield.

OK, so some stories never really go away.

Point is, the focus is back on baseball after a long winter. When the Nationals were last on the field, they were departing RFK Stadium to a standing ovation, fresh off an unlikely 81-81 inaugural season that might have extended into October if not for a second-half collapse.

It will be those memories of opportunities wasted that drive the 2006 Nationals through six weeks of fielding drills, batting cages and exhibition games and plenty of compelling story lines.

By the time they break camp March 30 and return north, they can only hope they’ve answered their five biggest questions of the spring …

• Will Soriano agree to play outfield?

In an offseason marked by mostly minor signings and roster moves, general manager Jim Bowden made one giant transaction at the winter meetings: the trade that sent outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and minor league pitcher Armando Galarraga to the Texas Rangers in exchange for the dynamic Soriano.

Soriano, who averaged 35 home runs, 97 RBI and 31 stolen bases in the last four years, would surely inject life into the Nationals’ stagnant lineup. And though he has played second base throughout his major league career, he’d move to the Washington outfield to allow incumbent Jose Vidro to stay at second.

Just one problem: Neither Bowden nor anyone else with the club ever bothered to ask Soriano if he’d be willing to make the position switch. He’s not, and he has made that point clear in the last two months.

Bowden and manager Frank Robinson’s first task this spring is to sit down with their newest star and persuade him to do what’s best for the team. No camp issue is more important.

• Who’s behind Livan Hernandez and John Patterson in the starting rotation?

Washington’s success last season was a direct result of the fabulous pitching it got from the entire rotation.

The two aces, Hernandez and Patterson, are back, but the rest of the quintet is a muddled mess. Stalwart Esteban Loaiza left for more money in Oakland, and Tony Armas Jr., Ryan Drese and Jon Rauch are all coming back from shoulder injuries.

Bowden traded for Brian Lawrence (an innings eater) and signed Ramon Ortiz (a two-time 15-game winner), but both are coming off down years and neither is a sure thing.

This much is sure: somebody had better emerge from the pack and take pressure off the two guys at the top of the rotation.

• Can Vidro return to his old self, or is he just old?

Fans in Washington may never fully appreciate just how good a player Vidro is, or at least was until his right knee started acting up more than two years ago. The former All-Star hasn’t been himself since and last season could barely move in the field … when he wasn’t on the disabled list.

After consulting with several doctors this offseason, Vidro elected not to undergo another surgery. He instead worked out diligently all winter and is reportedly in his best shape in years.

The question now becomes whether the 31-year-old can hold up for a full season. If he can, the Nationals have themselves an All-Star second baseman. If not, they’re going to have a really expensive injured player.

• Can Cristian Guzman hit at least .240?

Crazy as it sounds, the Nationals would probably take that from their $16 million shortstop, who is coming off one of the worst offensive seasons since the Deadball Era. His year-long tryst with the Mendoza Line left Robinson at a loss for words and fans booing at the top of their lungs.

But just when it looked like he was a lost cause, Guzman offered up a sliver of hope last September. He hit .325 in the final month to “raise” his average to .219 and suggest that maybe, just maybe he can turn it around this season.

If he can’t, the Nationals have positioned themselves to make the kind of permanent switch they were unable to make last year. Bowden signed veteran shortstop Royce Clayton (who hit .270 in Arizona last season) to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training.

If Guzman stumbles, Washington won’t be afraid to bench him in favor of Clayton.

• Is there a leadoff hitter in house?

One clear drawback of the Soriano trade was that it stripped the Nationals of their only proven leadoff hitter, Wilkerson, and left them scrambling to find a replacement.

Bowden made inquiries about acquiring the likes of Juan Pierre or Joey Gathright, but he was quickly rebuffed. So the Nationals will have to find their leadoff man (and center fielder) from within.

Ryan Church is the most accomplished of the lot. He’s coming off an impressive rookie season, though his production dropped off significantly in the second half and he’s hardly a prototypical leadoff hitter.

Marlon Byrd has leadoff experience with the Phillies and has shown flashes of brilliance (particularly after he was recalled from Class AAA in August). But he never has managed to sustain it.

If there’s a preferred candidate among the bunch, it’s Brandon Watson, a lightning-quick rookie who hit .355 and stole 31 bases at New Orleans a year ago. Watson, though, looked overwhelmed during his brief stint in the majors, and he’s got a lot to prove this spring.

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