- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Frank Robinson swears he hasn’t thought about it yet. Maybe sometime early next week, he says, when Opening Day truly is in his sights.

For now, the Washington Nationals manager figures it’s not worth formulating starting lineups in his head. Much can still happen between now and April 3, when his club faces the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.

And in Robinson’s defense, much really can happen in these final days of spring training. Think back just 12 months ago, when it was assumed Endy Chavez would be at the plate for the first at-bat in Nationals history. Then, less than a week before camp broke, Chavez was sent to the minors, reconfiguring the entire lineup.

Washington fans shouldn’t expect any roster moves quite that dramatic this time around, but it’s possible Robinson won’t settle on his Opening Day lineup until the last possible moment.

At this point, only a handful of assumptions can be made with any degree of certainty:

• If rookie outfielder Brandon Watson makes the team, he will bat leadoff.

• If Watson doesn’t make it, Robinson likely will have no choice but to use his center fielder (Ryan Church or Marlon Byrd) at the top of the order.

• Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, Nick Johnson, Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Zimmerman will constitute the heart of the order. There’s just no telling what order they will be in.

• Brian Schneider and Royce Clayton will hit seventh and eighth unless Robinson wants to take a chance on Clayton in the No. 2 hole.

In other words, everything is up for grabs nine days shy of the season opener.

Once Robinson finally sits down and starts scribbling out possibilities on a napkin, his first task will be to settle on his first hitter. Everything else should fall into place once that’s accomplished.

The decision could be a no-brainer. As Robinson has said repeatedly this spring: If Watson makes the club, he’s the leadoff man. But there have been growing signs the 24-year-old outfielder won’t make the final cut.

Not that Watson has done anything wrong — entering last night’s exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves, he was hitting .314 with a .368 on-base percentage. And he has been receptive to the Nationals’ coaching staff, which has tried to get him to take more pitches, bunt more often and look to spray the ball over all three fields.

But Watson hasn’t dazzled the Nationals, either. And because he’s one of the few players remaining in camp with minor league options, the consensus seems to be that he would be best served opening the year at Class AAA New Orleans.

Which would leave Robinson scrambling again for a leadoff hitter.

No one else fits the prototype. Soriano certainly has the most experience from his days setting the table for the New York Yankees’ All-Star lineup. But his .309 on-base percentage last season was worse than every other Nationals veteran projected to start, and his 36 homers were more than anyone else on the roster hit in 2005, so he likely will hit further down in the order.

The process of elimination wipes out just about everyone else: Vidro, Johnson, Guillen, Zimmerman and Schneider. All are considered run producers, and Robinson has said he wouldn’t use any in the No. 1 position.

So that leaves only two remaining candidates: Clayton, who has led off some in his lengthy career but produced only a .320 on-base percentage last year, and the eventual starting center fielder (either Church or Byrd).

Chances are, the choice will be the center fielder. Church, a big, strong outfielder with power potential, hardly fits the mold. But he hit .287 as a rookie, reached base at an impressive .353 clip and is a good fastball hitter. Byrd, meanwhile, has experience leading off while with the Philadelphia Phillies, and his .431 on-base percentage this spring is among the best on the club.

So figure one of the two is leading off come Opening Day. The rest of Robinson’s lineup should fall into place after that.

Vidro, a career .302 hitter with a little pop who doesn’t strike out much, is the likely No. 2 hitter. And Robinson seems to prefer batting Guillen (a high-average, good-power hitter) third.

Robinson also likes to alternate between left-handed and right-handed hitters, preventing opposing managers from bringing in relief specialists for long stints in the late innings. So using that logic, Johnson (the club’s best on-base player in 2005 at .408) would bat cleanup, followed by Soriano and Zimmerman (a rookie whom Robinson wants to keep pressure off).

Wrap things up with the left-handed-hitting Schneider seventh and the right-handed-hitting Clayton eighth, and there’s the Nationals’ starting lineup.

Just don’t write it down in permanent ink yet.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the https://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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