- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

Six weeks ago, the Washington Nationals assembled in Viera, Fla., for what figured to be an eventful spring training.

Only they had no idea just how eventful it would be.

The Nationals club that returns to town tonight for the first “Battle of the Beltways” exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles is still spinning its collective head after a dramatic, sometimes discouraging spring.

There were injuries, major ones, that sidelined Brian Lawrence, Luis Ayala and Robert Fick. There were setbacks, often involving the seven players who abandoned camp for three weeks to participate in the inaugural World Baseball Classic and have yet to catch up to everyone else.

There was sloppy defense, poor pitching and a lack of hitting from a team that posted an abysmal 9-21-1 record in exhibition play. And there was that little soap opera involving Alfonso Soriano and perhaps the most contentious position switch in baseball history.

“This spring training has been the most bizarre spring training I’ve ever been a part of in my career,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “I’ve never been a part of anything like this. It’s been the most un-fun, and to me, it’s been one nightmare after another. It’s like I’m working for the fire department, just putting out fires every day. It hasn’t been fun.”

But was it productive? Before the Nationals opened camp, The Washington Times outlined the following five questions that needed to be answered by Opening Day. Six weeks later, some of those issues have been resolved, others remain decidedly undecided and several new issues have emerged. …

Will Alfonso Soriano agree to play outfield?

Yes, but only after putting himself and the Nationals through a soap opera with more twists and turns than a bad episode of “Melrose Place.”

Because Soriano was away from camp playing for his native Dominican Republic in the WBC, the team decided not to address the biggest story of camp until he returned. When he came back to Viera on March 20, Bowden and manager Frank Robinson informed him he would be in that night’s lineup as the starting left fielder. Soriano said he wouldn’t play the position, and when the Nationals took the field against the Dodgers, only eight players emerged from the dugout.

Soriano took a public flogging during the next 48 hours, unmercifully ripped by television, radio and print commentators. The Nationals threatened to place him on the disqualified list, which would prevent him from becoming a free agent. Finally, on March 22 in Jupiter, Soriano told Robinson he would agree to play left field, not just for that day but for the season.

He has since taken a crash course in Outfield Defense 101, and the results have been mixed at best. This issue will continue to linger with the club all season.

Who’s behind Livan Hernandez and John Patterson in the starting rotation?

When camp opened, five right-handers were in the running for three open spots: Lawrence, Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr., Ryan Drese and Jon Rauch.

When the season opens Monday, Ortiz and Armas will be in the rotation, joined by a veteran right-hander who wasn’t even on the club the first day of spring training: Pedro Astacio.

Bowden went out and signed Astacio to an incentive-laden, one-year deal after Lawrence blew out his shoulder during his first bullpen session with the Nationals. It was a move made out of sheer necessity, because Drese had not yet recovered from his own offseason shoulder surgery and Rauch was needed in the bullpen.

So the spring battle for the three rotation spots really never took form. Astacio, Ortiz and Armas won the jobs by default, and while Ortiz looks like he might be headed for a big year, Astacio and Armas remain major question marks at this stage.

Is Jose Vidro back to his old self, or is he just old?

So far, it looks like Vidro is back to his old self. Though he keeps getting questioned about the state of his chronically injured right knee by reporters, the veteran second baseman insists he’s in his best shape in six years.

Vidro’s hitting stroke was a little slow to come around this spring, but he’s started hitting the ball with more authority during the past week. And while he may never fully recapture his .320-average, 15-homer, 90-RBI form, he should at least be a stabilizing force in the Nationals’ lineup and in the field, playing in 140 or more games.

Can Cristian Guzman hit at least .240?

That may never be known. Though the much-maligned shortstop showed up for camp trim and confident he would rebound from an awful 2005, he didn’t get a chance to show it on the field.

Guzman noticed pain in his throwing shoulder during the first week of March, and an MRI later revealed he has a partially torn labrum. He’s spent the last two weeks trying to build up muscle and strength around the shoulder, hoping he can play through the injury, but he’ll open the year on the disabled list and may still ultimately need season-ending surgery.

Either way, Bowden’s signing of veteran Royce Clayton to a minor-league contract during the winter looks pretty good right now.

Is there a leadoff hitter in house?

Yes, there is, and surprisingly his name is Brandon Watson.

The Nationals entered camp hoping the 24-year-old outfielder would dazzle club officials with his small-ball skills and force them to include him on the Opening Day roster. Sure enough, Watson held up his end of the bargain and beat out second-year outfielder Ryan Church for the center field job.

Of course, it’s still not certain how Watson will respond once the games start counting. The Nationals believe he’s up to the challenge, but if he struggles early and Church tears up Class AAA New Orleans like everyone expects, don’t be surprised if the two swap roster spots.

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