- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Veteran Royce Clayton is too savvy to come out and say he should be the Washington Nationals’ starting shortstop. Fifteen years in the big leagues have taught Clayton to let his play do the talking.

And with incumbent starter Cristian Guzman out about a week with a sore right shoulder, Clayton has a good opportunity to show manager Frank Robinson he can be a viable Opening Day option.

“[Guzman’s injury] doesn’t change anything as far as I’m concerned, absolutely nothing,” Clayton said. “It doesn’t matter who starts today or next week or Opening Day. It has absolutely nothing to do with the goal. The goal is bigger than myself or Cristian. It’s about winning.”

Clayton, whom the Nationals signed to a non-guaranteed minor league deal in February, hit .270 with two home runs and 44 RBI in 143 games last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks. But Clayton’s glove is perhaps his greatest asset. He committed only 11 errors and finished with a .982 fielding percentage last season..

“That’s what a shortstop is: to go out there and help you’re pitching staff and secure the middle of the infield,” Clayton said. “I take a lot of pride in it. It’s kind of overlooked these days, but now with things coming back to earth with runs scored per game, I think it’s going to be appreciated. Defense anywhere, pitching or whether it will be outfield defense, just the little things will be more appreciated in the game. And that’s what I like to do.”

The addition of Clayton gives the Nationals something they lacked last year — a true backup for Guzman.

“If Guzman went down a year ago, we’re having a different conversation than now because your conversation is, ‘Jim, what ya going to do? Who are you going to go get?’” Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said. “Well, we prepared for that. You don’t have to ask that question.”

Still, Clayton is more than insurance in case Guzman’s injury gets worse or he has a repeat of last season, when he hit just .219.

“To have someone like Clayton in camp, yeah, it is very comforting,” Robinson said. “Because if this thing [with Guzman] persists or gets worse, then you know you have a guy that can go in there and play shortstop for us and do a very good job for us. I know what he’s capable of doing, let me put it that way. So he doesn’t have to come here to prove to me anything. I’m sure he is here to look and produce the best he possibly can to try and influence people and say, ‘Hey, he’s a player that can start the season playing shortstop.’”

For now, it appears Guzman will be the one who does that. Clayton remains prepared to be a backup, though deep down he knows he’s capable of starting.

“Hopefully, they brought me here as a person that can help the team win,” Clayton said. “What I bring to the table every day, that’s what you look for. It’s not one specific thing.”

At the same time, the Nationals know Clayton can do the job all season if needed. Last season, the club had utility infielder Jamey Carroll, who played some short but also had to fill in for second baseman Jose Vidro and third baseman Vinny Castilla because of injuries.

As a result, the Nationals were forced to play a slumping Guzman every day even though he finished with the lowest batting average among all of the league’s everyday shortstops.

The Nationals — Robinson included — sit in a much better situation this season with Clayton.

“I am because of the known factor,” Robinson said. “The known factor is that he can play shortstop. He can play it for over 150 games. You know he’s going to give a very good defensive job out of it. Yeah, that’s a comfort zone right there.”

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