- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

VIERA, Fla.

The one thing the Washington Nationals were counting on from starting pitcher Brian Lawrence was innings — and lots of them.

“We were counting on 200 innings from Brian this year,” general manager Jim Bowden said.

They probably didn’t even get 200 warmup pitches.

The pitcher the Nationals were counting on to step in and fill the No. 3 spot in the rotation left vacant by the departure of Esteban Loaiza has a shoulder injury, a tear in his right labrum.

Lawrence, for whom the Nationals traded third baseman Vinny Castilla in the offseason, threw 820 innings over the past four years but was coming off a dismal 7-15 record for San Diego last season.

He could return as early as August or could be finished for the season depending on what they found when doctors operated this morning at Washington Hospital Center. If it’s slightly damaged and can be cleaned up, Lawrence, who apparently hurt it the first time he worked out here in spring training, could pitch for Washington this year. If it is a complete tear, Lawrence won’t get the pleasure of the company of Nationals fans this season.

“It really depends on what we find when we go in there,” team surgeon Wiemi Douoguih said.

They may find Pedro Astacio’s wallet.

The Nationals had been negotiating with Astacio, trying to get the 36-year-old to sign a nonguaranteed minor league contract. Astacio is 124-119 with a 4.61 ERA in a 14-year career with seven different 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 pitch the San Diego Padres into the playoffs, going 4-2 with a 3.17 ERA in 12 appearances.

He may be the definition of the word journeyman, and the journey may be near the end. But he has a resume that nearly equals the combined major league track records of the remaining candidates for the three open spots in the Nationals rotation: Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr., Jon Rauch and Ryan Drese. Astacio may have gone from a luxury to a necessity.

“We have been looking for starting pitching,” Bowden said. “As you know, we have been negotiating with Pedro Astacio. We are continuing that negotiation, although we are far apart on a deal there.”

They had better get closer — perhaps at one of those legendary Nationals management two-hour breakfast meetings at which everyone figures out where everyone else is coming from.

“It is certainly a setback,” Bowden said. “We walk into camp with seven guys to start, and now you’re down to six. One more injury and you are down to five. It is a concern.”

One more injury and it is not a concern. It is a calamity.

It won’t matter whether Jose Vidro or Alfonso Soriano or the ghost of Bucky Harris is playing second base if the Nationals don’t find a legitimate third starter. (There I went and mentioned “The Forbidden Base.” Yesterday a fan yelled at Soriano, “Second base, Alfonso,” waving his fist. He was not seen or heard from again.)

Armas may be that third starter. He has impressed the coaches so far this spring, and if he is healthy and emotionally mature, he can be a 15-game winner. But he hasn’t proved he can be either of those things yet as a major leaguer.

Ortiz could certainly be that guy. He looked as if he was on his way to a pretty good major league career with the Angels, going 15-9 in 2002 and 16-13 in 2003. But he has tailed off since and went 9-11 in Cincinnati last year, and concerns remain about his control. The other two, Drese and Rauch, can’t be counted on at this point to be anything more than a fifth starter or long reliever.

The bigger problem is depth — not just come Opening Day but in June or July, when the Nationals need a pitcher from Class AAA New Orleans. If the Nationals don’t replace Lawrence and instead just move everyone up in the competition — keeping the field at six — they are perilously close to those John Halama-type days like they had last season, when they were throwing pitchers out there so bad they lasted one inning.

I don’t know where Pedro Astacio is coming from, but I know where he should be going — beautiful downtown Viera.


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