Monday, February 20, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — It looks like five pitchers will compete for the final three spots in the Washington Nationals’ rotation.

Newcomers Brian Lawrence and Ramon Ortiz are expected to fill two of them, and Ryan Drese, Tony Armas Jr. and Jon Rauch will compete for the remaining job.

Drese, Armas and Rauch all underwent shoulder surgery in the past year. Lawrence and Ortiz are coming off below-average seasons, losing a combined 26 games last season.

The two who don’t make the rotation likely will end up as long relievers.

“I don’t think [the competition is] going to change the way somebody approaches camp,” said Drese, who went 3-6 with a 4.98 ERA last season for the Nationals after being claimed off waivers from the Texas Rangers. “If you’re trying to get a spot, trying to get ready for the start of the season, you’re still going to go in with the same mind-set: You’ve got to be ready and get yourself the best you can be.”

Lawrence, acquired in November from the San Diego Padres for Vinny Castilla, finished 7-15 with a 4.83 ERA last season. But the veteran right-hander believes he has reason for higher expectations in Washington.

“I’m looking forward to the humidity more than anything,” he said. “Being out West where it’s kind of dry, the ball doesn’t always do what you want it to do. Being a sinkerball pitcher, that [humidity] is going to help me out. It’s going to be nice.”

Hands-on instruction

Former major league catcher Bob Boone, a special assistant to Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, spent about an hour yesterday — the first day of full workouts for pitchers and catchers — talking about mechanics with veteran backstops Robert Fick and Wiki Gonzalez on field No. 3 at the team’s minor league spring training complex.

Boone was a four-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner during his 19-year career with the Philadelphia Phillies, California Angels and Kansas City Royals.

Fick said he never has undergone that type of instruction during his major league career.

“We were just talking about throwing,” he said. “First, he talked about my hands — soft hands — and how you should receive the ball. The rap on me is my throwing. He says that he is going to make me an accurate thrower to second base. I have the arm strength; I just really haven’t had the accuracy. … He’s teaching it a little different, and I like it.”

Pitching prospect

Pitcher Bill Bray, the franchise’s first-round draft pick in 2004, has an impressive resume: He competed for the U.S. Olympic team and earned a high rating from Baseball America.

But unless Bray does something extraordinary in camp, he probably will open the season in the minors — and that’s fine by him.

Last season, Bray shot through the club’s minor league system, starting at Class A Potomac and finishing at Class AAA New Orleans. Bray would love an opportunity to pitch in the majors, but says he takes camp as a learning experience and is content to wait until it’s his time.

“It’s great having guys of such caliber around you. It actually makes things a lot easier,” said Bray, who was the first player from William & Mary to be taken in the first round. “I definitely think I can pitch at this level.”

Bray, 22, envisions himself as a left-handed specialist or setup man.

“I’m really going to be watching guys like Mike Stanton and Joey Eischen and pick up the little things that they do that are different from everybody else that have made them successful,” he said.

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