- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — It’s a good thing the Washington Nationals have four playing fields at their spring training facility. With all the bodies that will be here starting with tomorrow’s full workout for pitchers and position players, they are going to need all the real estate they can get.

Nearly 70 players are expected in what will amount to a competition only a few steps above the long-shot tryout camps teams run across the country. At least the purpose is the same, which is to find help for a franchise that needs all it can get.

Daryle Ward, Kenny Kelly, Ruben Mateo, Alex Escobar, George Lombard — all cut from the same five-tool player mold and showed great promise but never have been able to learn how to use those tools. General manager Jim Bowden is hoping one of the failed prospects in camp will find success in Washington.

Bowden has a track record with this — at least he believes so — with the success of two reclamation projects in Cincinnati. Ron Gant and Eric Davis, who both appeared to have been finished because of injuries, revived their careers with the Reds.

The difference, though, between Gant, Davis and the group that will be competing for jobs with the Nationals is that Gant and Davis had careers. These guys in the Nationals’ camp have done nothing to come back from.

Still, if you get lucky, you’ve got a player under the conditions that suits this franchise just fine — pretty much for nothing.

Bowden also is trying to get lucky with the Nationals pitching staff, though at least most of the candidates for the starting rotation have major league credentials. They are more likely than the hitters to have success because RFK Stadium is conducive to pitchers having success.

Bowden said that when he tried to woo pitchers here this winter, he did so on the basis of the franchise offering a safe haven.

“We attempted to sell pitchers that [RFK Stadium] is Coors Field for pitchers,” he said. “The ballpark has something to do with it, our defense has something to do with it and [pitching coach] Randy St. Claire had something to do with it. We said, ‘If you need one year to prove yourself, this is the place to come.’”

The latest line the team has cast is after 36-year-old right-handed starter Pedro Astacio, whom the Nationals hope to sign a nonguaranteed minor league contract. Astacio is 124-119 with a 4.61 ERA in a 14-year career with seven teams. He missed most of the 2004 season after undergoing shoulder surgery, then was released by the Texas Rangers in June after opening the season 2-8 with a 6.04 ERA. But he came back to help the San Diego Padres, going 4-2 with a 3.17 ERA in 12 appearances, and is probably the most attractive out of all of the candidates in camp to be the new Esteban Loaiza — one of the Nationals’ pitching projects from last year. The other was reliever Hector Carrasco.

If you can throw Astascio into the mix with Brian Lawrence, Ramon Ortiz (who throws the ball hard), Ryan Drese, Tony Armas Jr. and Jon Rauch, the prospects for a decent Nationals rotation beyond the two studs, Livan Hernandez and John Patterson, get a little better.

But it still would be a group of candidates pretty much unwanted by anybody else.

Why feel better about the Nationals’ rotation, particularly if Astacio is part of it? Two reasons — St. Claire and RFK Stadium.

If there ever was a situation in which a pitcher with major league ability but minor league results can realize his potential, it is with the Nationals. St. Claire is gaining a reputation as one of baseball’s premier pitching coaches. He wound up earning Loaiza a three-year, $21million deal with the Athletics (a contract that Mr. Moneyball in Oakland will regret for far longer than three years). And Carrasco, at age 36 and for all intents and purposes washed up, signed a two-year, $6.1million contract with the Angels after he had a career low 2.04 ERA in 64 appearances last season.

If pitchers and their agents had enough vision, they would be lining up for a chance to pitch for the Nationals. One season making pocket change here is worth millions later. St. Claire’s success, along with the ballpark where home runs go to die, make this the perfect place for a pitcher to get healthy.

Though there may be exceptions, if you can’t perform well here — beyond a win-loss record, with numbers to compensate for any lack of offense — you might as well call it a career.

If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere.

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