- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Shawn Hill is 25 years old and has made all of nine starts in his major league career. Yet upon scanning the clubhouse yesterday, the Washington Nationals right-hander noted he’s already one of the senior members of the pitching staff.

“You’ve got to meet new people every year, but the amount of new guys compared to returning guys … it’s almost like the returning guys are outnumbered this year,” Hill said. “It’s like going to a new high school.”

A very large high school.

Nationals pitchers and catchers reported to spring training yesterday and then proceeded to spend most of the morning introducing themselves to the largest staff in the majors. There are a staggering 38 pitchers on the spring roster, only eight of which were in Washington’s major league camp a year ago.

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And while some of those pitchers are minor leaguers with virtually no chance of making the Opening Day roster, there are far more who will be given realistic shots over the next six weeks. That’s especially true in a wide-open starting rotation, with at least 10 guys in the running for four open slots behind de facto ace John Patterson.

“Everybody’s going to be getting a fair shot,” manager Manny Acta said.

But are there enough hours of daylight and enough innings in exhibition games for Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire to get a look at everyone? They insist there will be. Taking advantage of split-squad games, early morning “B” games and minor league camp, the Nationals will squeeze as much as they can out of these pitchers, hoping a smaller group of legitimate contenders emerges from the pack within the first few weeks.

And anyone who seriously wants to make a case for himself better do it quickly.

“You’re trying to impress [a] staff that hasn’t seen you pitch and maybe open their eyes into taking you,” St. Claire said. “These guys should be coming in here ready to roll. They’ve got to be, because they have to impress us. Every outing is very important to them.”

“There’s so many guys, you can’t take it for granted that you’ll have five, six weeks to prove yourself,” Hill said. “It might be over in two weeks.”

Making matters more complicated, there are no real frontrunners for the four rotation spots behind Patterson. Everyone comes in on equal footing, though the handful of pitchers in camp with major-league experience do have a slight leg up on the rest.

Those who fit that bill include right-handers Tim Redding (21-34 in 101 career games with the Astros, Padres and Yankees), Jerome Williams (23-24 in 70 games with the Giants and Cubs), Jason Simontacchi (20-10 in 83 games with the Cardinals) and Colby Lewis (12-13 in 46 games with the Rangers and Tigers) and lefty Mike Bacsik (5-5 in 22 games with the Indians, Mets and Rangers).

“I don’t try to make everything complicated, worry about whoever’s in here and how many spots are open,” said Simontacchi, who hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since injuring his shoulder in 2004. “In the end, I just need to pitch and do my best on the mound. If that’s not enough, they’ll let me know.”

But experience doesn’t count for everything. The Nationals are trying to build a young team that can compete for years to come, and to that end, Acta and St. Claire may be more inclined to keep some of the less-proven, less-experienced rookies who also dot the roster.

That group includes Hill (2-5 in his nine appearances with the franchise), Beltran Perez (2-1 in eight games last fall), Joel Hanrahan (who spent the last seven years in the Dodgers’ farm system), left-hander Matt Chico (who has never pitched above Class AA) and Rule 5 pickup Levale Speigner (selected away from the Twins after only 11 outings at Class AAA).

And thrown in on top of all that are returning Nationals Mike O’Connor (who still is recovering from offseason elbow surgery), Billy Traber (a former first-round pick who struggled last season) and Jason Bergmann (who split time between the rotation and the bullpen).

“We’re not just after guys that think they have the best chance of making a big-league club over here,” Acta said. “We’re looking for the people that are going to help us win, and help us for the long run, too.”

Of course, quantity doesn’t necessarily translate into quality, and there’s no telling how good or bad the eventual five-man rotation will be. Most observers around the game expect the Nationals to have one of the worst starting staffs in baseball.

Team members have been hearing these dire predictions all winter, but few seem to be buying into the lack of hype.

“There’s a lot of things that people will say, but until the games come about, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” St. Claire said. “What did everybody say about the Marlins last year? People can step up and do a great job if given the opportunity. You never know until they’re given the chance.”

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