- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Since no one will talk anymore about second base — now known in Washington as the lambada of baseball positions, “The Forbidden Base” — let’s talk about perhaps the most competitive position open this spring on the Nationals roster — center field.

There are three candidates for the job as spring training starts — Ryan Church, Marlon Byrd and Brandon Watson. If there is a favorite, not necessarily because he is the best candidate but the one the team wants to emerge as the winner, it’s the Watson kid because he fills a second important need — leadoff hitter.

He has the speed that this offense missed last season. All the talk this winter was about adding punch to the lineup, but the reality is that speed might be the more important ingredient. The Nationals offense last year operated on situational and opportunistic hitting, but the offense’s primary weakness was that they ran the bases like a softball team.

Putting Watson at the top of the lineup can go a long way to letting the club operate an offense that better fits the ballpark the Nationals play in for 81 games a year, where home run power becomes warning track power.

“Watson has the potential to be the prototype leadoff hitter everybody talks about,” Nats manager Frank Robinson said. “But today that is almost nonexistent, and you don’t lose a lot of sleep over it. But we have a young man here who brings a lot to the table. He could hit leadoff or lower in the lineup. He brings speed. He brings making contact and putting the ball in play, and he can steal some bases and go from first to third and get himself in scoring position. He can bunt. Hopefully he will learn how to work the count and draw walks. He is the closest to being the prototype leadoff hitter of anybody here in camp, as far as I’m concerned.

“If he wins the job, we will be better off in that respect, because he can create a little havoc at the top of the lineup and put some pressure on the defense and pitching if they are worried about him stealing second or going from first to third.”

There you go. The job is basically the 24-year-old Watson’s to lose.

He has progressed step-by-step through the organization’s minor league system since being drafted in 1999, but has never hit less than .267 at any level, and last year, in 88 games with Class AAA New Orleans, Watson batted .355, scoring 69 runs and stealing 31 bases, with a .400 on-base percentage.

But he has done all he can in the minor leagues to prove himself, and now he is ready to fight for a major league job this spring. Watson knows a little bit about fighting. His father, Sam, is a fight manager and agent, and has worked with such fighters as Floyd Mayweather and Vernon Forrest.

“My dad has always been in the fight game,” he said. “Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson are good friends with my dad. His first client, though, was Vernon Forrest, when he beat Sugar Shane Mosley the first time.”

Watson grew up around fighters, and went to a lot of big fights. “I was there when [George] Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer,” he said. “That was pretty exciting.”

He was drawn to baseball, though, growing up in a hotbed of baseball in his Los Angeles neighborhood, where former major league stars as Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis grew up. In fact, Davis is a close friend of the Watson family and Brandon’s godfather. Sam Watson used to run an inner-city baseball program in Los Angeles in which Davis and other major leaguers participated. Watson’s middle name is Eric.

Watson knows what he needs to do this spring to fight for the competitive center field job.

“I need to get on base, score runs, steal bases and play good defense,” he said. “That’s what I need to go out there and do.”

But what he may need to do the most is prove he is patient at the plate. He has never walked more than the 39 times he did last season — 28 at New Orleans, four in 25 games with the Nats and seven in 34 games with Class AA Harrisburg.

“I am working on being patient at the plate,” Watson said. “I am more of a hitter. I like to go after the ball. But I want to do my best to cut down on swinging at pitches that I can’t handle. I will do what I have to do to get on base.”

Watson might want to go back and look at Endy Chavez’s spring training last year, when the leadoff batter the Nationals hoped would win the same job made two outs on just eight pitches in his exhibition game debut, and never got the simple message that a walk was as good as a hit.

Robinson said he is confident whoever emerges from the three candidates will do the job, and the others still likely will be on the roster in other outfield positions — possibly starting if Jose Guillen is not physically ready to play right field come Opening Day, or if Alfonso Soriano requires a court order to move to left field.

There’s “The Forbidden Base” again. Let’s stick to center field.

“Center field is the most competitive job right now,” Robinson said. “But all of those guys who are competing for that job can play the other positions out there also. That is the one [position] that is open right now, let me put it that way.”

Center field is the one position that is open right now? I guess left field is a done deal — or does that fall under gag order, too?

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide