- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

They have spent the last four months defending their grand plan to rebuild themselves into a championship-caliber franchise, determined not to deviate from their charted course while trying to convince the general public to climb aboard and enjoy the ride.

Now it’s time to start seeing “The Plan” in action.

The Washington Nationals begin spring training today, aware of all the doom-and-gloom predictions for the upcoming season but resolute in their motivation to prove the naysayers wrong.

So what if they can’t name four-fifths of their starting rotation? Who cares if they have no bona fide cleanup hitter to fill in while Nick Johnson recovers from a broken leg? Talk of a 100-loss season? Pish-posh.

Pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla., today, and that’s reason enough to get excited. Optimism is always high on the first day of spring training, and good vibes certainly will permeate the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium as players start trickling in.

Of course, that clubhouse is going to be plenty crowded, with 71 players (including an astounding 38 pitchers) vying for 25 roster spots. It’s quite possible new manager Manny Acta won’t know everyone by name before the first round of cuts take place in early March.

With so many jobs up for grabs and so many new faces in uniform, there is no shortage of story lines as camp opens. There are, however, five key questions that must be answered above all else before the Nationals head back north for Opening Day.

• Who’s in the rotation?

This might as well be the club’s official spring training motto because no development over the next six weeks is more important. Major league teams traditionally have three or four rotation spots locked up before camp even starts. The Nationals have one: de facto ace John Patterson, who himself is a question mark after making just eight starts last season because of a forearm injury.

Patterson’s status, though, is exponentially more secure than the dozen or so pitchers who will vie for the other four starting jobs. Washington essentially will be holding an open audition, with newcomers Tim Redding, Jerome Williams, Jason Simontacchi, Colby Lewis, Joel Hanrahan and Chris Michalak squaring off against holdovers Mike O’Connor, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann and Billy Traber and rookies Beltran Perez and Matt Chico.

All will be looked at equally by Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire, but if anyone from the bunch appears to enter on remotely solid footing, it would be Redding. The right-hander, who turned 29 yesterday, has made 101 major league appearances and went 10-14 with a 3.68 ERA for the Houston Astros in 2003. He has bounced around since, but he pitched well for the Chicago White Sox’s Class AAA squad a year ago, signed with the Nationals over the winter and now looks like the front-runner for the No. 2 spot in the rotation.

• When will Nick Johnson be able to play?

When Johnson broke his right femur in a nasty collision with teammate Austin Kearns in September, club officials expressed optimism he would be ready to return Opening Day. They since have amended that prediction, refusing to rule out the possibility of a full recovery by April 1 but cautioning that Johnson may need another month or more.

The Nationals don’t want to rush Johnson, who is entering the first year of his three-year, $16.5 million contract extension and is a vital piece to the organization’s long-term plan. But from a competitive standpoint, they desperately need the club’s most-consistent offensive player back in the lineup.

Johnson worked hard all winter to get his body back into shape, but he’s only now ready to resume baseball activities. Until team doctors see him on the field in action, they won’t really know how far away he is.

Assuming Johnson has to open the season on the disabled list, the Nationals will need to find a replacement first baseman. Perpetual prospect Larry Broadway is the preferred choice, but if he doesn’t look ready for the big time, utilityman Robert Fick and journeyman Travis Lee are viable alternatives.

• Who’s in left field?

The only position in the field that’s truly up for grabs this spring is in left, where Ryan Church again will be given a chance to prove he’s the long-term answer.

Church has teased the Nationals with his potent bat and solid glovework for parts of two seasons now, but he hasn’t been able to sustain any success, and he’s rubbed some club officials the wrong way with his attitude. Acta says the job is Church’s to lose, but there are others waiting in the wings if Church doesn’t seize it.

The oft-injured Alex Escobar is back for another crack after hitting .356 in 33 games before separating his right shoulder. Chris Snelling, acquired from the Seattle Mariners in the Jose Vidro trade, also has battled injuries throughout his career but remains intriguing.

The wild card of the bunch is 25-year-old Kory Casto, a two-time organizational player of the year. Casto has never played above Class AA, and the Nationals would prefer he get more seasoning, but they also won’t be afraid to hand him the starting job if he wows them this spring.

• Will Luis Ayala be back in form?

Though Washington’s rotation is a mess, its bullpen is surprisingly strong and deep, and Ayala’s return from elbow ligament replacement surgery only bolsters the unit.

Before blowing his arm out at last spring’s World Baseball Classic — despite pleas from the team not to participate — Ayala was one of the top right-handed setup men in the National League. He’s expected to make a full recovery and be ready for Opening Day, but it takes time for a pitcher to come all the way back from Tommy John surgery.

The Nationals will monitor Ayala’s progress closely, not wanting to push him too fast. Acta may prefer to use Jon Rauch as his primary eighth-inning reliever for now, but look for Ayala to work his way back into the role before long.

• Is this Cristian Guzman’s last chance?

Remember Guzman? Two years ago, he suffered the wrath of Nationals fans every time he grounded out, hit a weak popup or threw wildly to first base. After signing a four-year, $16.8 million contract, the shortstop suffered through one of the worst statistical seasons in decades and needed a late September push just to get his batting average above .200.

Guzman showed up at spring training last year determined to rebound, but he tore the labrum in his right shoulder and never got the chance. Now he’s back for another go at it, buoyed by laser eye surgery that should help him see the ball better.

Here’s the question, though: If the Nationals see the Guzman of old, will they finally run out of patience and declare him a lost cause?

Notes — Patterson argued his salary case in front of an arbitration panel yesterday. Patterson, eligible for arbitration for the first time, asked arbitrators Elliott Shriftman, Dan Brent and Stephen Goldberg for a raise from $450,000 to $1.85 million. The Nationals offered $850,000. …

Outfielder Nook Logan agreed to terms on a one-year contract. Logan started 25 of Washington’s last 29 games, and Acta has said the job in center field is Logan’s to lose this spring.

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