Monday, April 23, 2007

There’s a dilemma brewing inside the Washington Nationals clubhouse, one that could have a lasting impact on the team’s fortunes both this season and beyond.

It won’t come to the forefront for another week or so, but when it does, it promises to draw the attention of both Manny Acta and Jim Bowden.

The dilemma: What happens when Cristian Guzman and Nook Logan come off the disabled list?

Both starters were injured Opening Day (Guzman with a strained left hamstring, Logan with a sprained left foot) and haven’t been heard from since. But both are now eligible to return, and though they still need more time to recover, it won’t be long before they are ready.

But will there be a place in the Nationals’ lineup for each upon his return? There’s a reasonable argument that there shouldn’t.

In some ways, Washington has been better off without both players. Despite some initial concerns about defense, the adjusted middle-infield combo of Felipe Lopez and Ronnie Belliard has been more than adequate, and Belliard has become a productive hitter in the No. 2 hole. And while Ryan Church certainly hasn’t been able to match Logan’s defensive prowess in center field, he has held his own (and then some) while allowing Chris Snelling to make an impact in left field.

So what happens now? Does the baseball adage — “You don’t lose your job because of an injury” — still hold true, or is one of these guys about to be Wally Pipp-ed to the bench?

Listen to what Bowden and Acta said when asked the question last week.

Bowden: “We’re committed to putting the best team on the field that we can. That’s what we’re committed to.”

Acta: “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Not exactly ringing endorsements for the incumbents.

It’s doubtful Logan won’t be in center field upon his return. The speedster is legitimately one of the best defensive players at his position in baseball, and his presence in the field helps this team win games. Plus, Church easily can slide back to left field, with Snelling coming off the bench.

But if, say, after two or three weeks, Logan’s batting average is below .200, would Acta have to consider a change?

The Guzman dilemma is more complicated. As much as everyone in the organization would like to see the guy finally play up to the $16.8 million contract he got three years ago, there are plenty who doubt it will happen. There’s just too much pressure on him to perform, and this string of injuries hasn’t helped.

Plus, there’s this to consider: Belliard’s greatest value to the Nationals is on the trade market. Come July, there are going to be contending clubs that could sorely use a versatile, experienced and productive infielder like him, and someone’s going to be willing to offer a halfway-legitimate prospect in exchange for him.

But how much does Belliard’s value go down if he’s on the bench, not out at second base seven days a week? Then again, what good is Guzman doing sitting on the bench and making $4.2 million?

Such is the dilemma facing the Nationals. Logan or Snelling? Guzman or Belliard? They can’t put these decisions off forever.

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