- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Scan the far wall of the Washington Nationals’ spring clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium and you’ll find no shortage of lockers with the nameplates of established major leaguers.

There’s Damian Jackson. Marlon Anderson. Robert Fick. Matt LeCroy. Michael Tucker. Marlon Byrd. Daryle Ward. Royce Clayton. Mike DiFelice. Wiki Gonzalez.

Some simple calculations, though, quickly lead you to one conclusion: There’s no way Washington is going to be able to keep all these guys once the season starts.

Assuming the Nationals break camp with an 11-man pitching staff, they’ll have six available spots on their Opening Day bench. And assuming everyone (i.e. Jose Guillen, Jose Vidro and Fick) is healthy, those six spots aren’t nearly enough to retain the services of all those players.

“You can’t take everybody,” manager Frank Robinson said. “But it’s always better to have more than you need than not to have as many as you need.”

That was general manager Jim Bowden’s goal during a busy offseason. After watching his bench hit a collective .199 as pinch-hitters, he went out and signed a load of proven role players.

Maybe too many.

There are Jackson, Anderson, Clayton and Ward in the infield, Tucker and Byrd (the lone guy back from 2005) in the outfield, DiFelice and Gonzalez behind the plate and utilitymen Fick and LeCroy.

Common sense says four of them are assured of roster spots:

• Anderson, who signed a two-year, $1.85 million deal, will be the primary left-handed pinch-hitter while also backing up second base, first base and both corner outfield positions.

• Jackson, who signed a one-year, $750,000 contract, will back up both middle infield positions and can also play center field.

• Fick, who signed for one-year and $850,000, can catch, play both corner infield positions and even some outfield.

• LeCroy, also signed for one year and $850,000, is the primary right-handed pinch-hitter and can both catch and play first base.

After that, things get tricky.

The Nationals probably will keep a true fourth outfielder, with Byrd and Tucker in the mix. But those two could be shut out by the loser of the center field competition between Ryan Church and Brandon Watson.

“My goal is to come in here and prove that I’ve still got it,” said Byrd, who hit .266 in 79 games last year. “You can’t take anything for granted. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Washington most likely will have to use the final spot on a true backup catcher, either Gonzalez or DiFelice. Bowden entered camp hoping the combination of Fick and LeCroy would suffice, but Fick’s recent surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow probably nixed that plan.

“Initially, we were talking about [Fick] being the second catcher here,” Robinson said. “Not right now. He wouldn’t be able to do that, because he can’t handle the load.”

In fact, Fick may have to start the season on the disabled list, even if he resumes hitting in the next week as doctors predict.

“If he can’t throw 100 percent, then we’re not going to activate him,” Bowden said. “We need his arm in the game, whether it’s at catcher or right or first or wherever. We’re going to get it right.”

So perhaps the Nationals can find a way to create another roster spot for someone like Byrd (who is out of minor league options) or Ward or Clayton (who both signed minor league contracts with no guaranteed salary) or even one of their own farmhands like infielder Brendan Harris.

It’s tough to be in that situation, though, especially when you’re an established major-leaguer like Ward (who hit .260 with 12 homers and 63 RBI for the Pittsburgh Pirates last season) or Clayton (who hit .270 as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ everyday shortstop in 2005).

Ultimately, those veteran non-roster players know they face long odds. They just hope to make some small impression on the Nationals (or on another major league club that might be watching) in hopes of landing one of those coveted roster spots.

“That’s what I’m striving for: to play well and open some eyes here,” Ward said. “This is where I want to be. This is where I signed. … You have to think positive about it. I can’t sit here and think that I’m a Triple-A ballplayer, because I’m not.”

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