- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Cristian Guzman arrived at Space Coast Stadium yesterday morning and admitted his surgically repaired shoulder is not yet 100 percent, then learned a few minutes later his team had signed veteran Ronnie Belliard as insurance in case Guzman doesn’t heal in time for Opening Day.

Just the latest bit of intrigue from a Washington Nationals camp that already has featured several juicy developments.

Despite the club’s belief Guzman will be healthy and productive enough to be its everyday shortstop, general manager Jim Bowden decided not to take any chances and signed the 31-year-old Belliard to a minor league contract that will pay him $750,000 if he makes the major league squad.

Belliard, a career .272 hitter who split last season with the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals, could take over at second base if Guzman is hurt, allowing Felipe Lopez to move back to shortstop.

“We feel it gives us protection in the middle of the diamond going into spring training, plus a good right-handed bat off the bench, which is something this club needed,” Bowden said.

The Nationals feel they need protection in the middle infield because of Guzman’s uncertain return from a torn right labrum that sidelined him all of last season. The 28-year-old shortstop, still trying to shake the demons from his wretched 2005, will have an MRI in the next few days so club doctors can get a better look at his shoulder.

Manager Manny Acta gave a positive report about Guzman’s progress after watching him work out last month in the Dominican Republic, but the shortstop said yesterday he hasn’t fully recovered from surgery in May.

“Not yet. Not 100 percent,” Guzman said. “I can do everything, but I’m a little bit sore still. I’m just a little bit tired because I worked a lot in the Dominican.”

Acta insisted the MRI is “a formal procedure to make sure we go into spring training with peace of mind. But there’s absolutely no problem with his shoulder.”

Guzman answered some of those questions yesterday when he took swings in a batting cage and later took grounders in the field. (He didn’t make any throws, though, in part because of high winds in the area that affected everyone in uniform.)

Even if he’s healthy, there’s no guarantee Guzman finally will play up to the potential that prompted Bowden to sign him to a four-year, $16.8 million contract in November 2004. The last time anyone saw Guzman on a major league field, he was struggling to keep his batting average above .200 while playing erratic defense and trying to ignore nightly catcalls from RFK Stadium crowds.

Guzman now admits his shoulder already was hurting back then and was a primary factor in his unproductive season, both at the plate and in the field.

“A lot,” he said. “You see how I throw my ball everywhere.”

He’s hoping laser eye surgery performed after the 2005 season will help him better see the ball, and club officials are hoping he will return to the form he displayed earlier in his career with the Minnesota Twins.

“That’s obviously what our expectations are,” Bowden said. “You can’t predict the future. I can’t predict how the shoulder is going to hold up. I can’t predict that he’s going to for sure hit .270 like he should hit. That’s why you have to be protected if you don’t.”

So the Nationals yesterday signed Belliard, who hit a combined .272 with 13 homers and 67 RBI for Cleveland and St. Louis last season and wound up as the Cardinals’ starting second baseman during their World Series title run but had been out of work since.

The lack of interest in Belliard may have had something to do with a recent report linking him to a federal extortion case that is still pending. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Belliard (who is married and has two children) impregnated Laura L. Edwards and then was asked by her father, George Edwards, to pay $150,000 to keep quiet. Belliard’s agent confirmed his client’s involvement in the case to the paper but stressed Belliard wasn’t being charged with anything.

Acta, who spoke with Belliard recently, said the Nationals were aware of the situation before signing him and aren’t concerned about any distractions.

“Not an issue,” the manager said. “We’re satisfied with what comes out of the commissioner’s office. He’s clean.”

Though his role in Washington remains unknown, Belliard does appear to be assured of a job. He’s due to report to major league camp tomorrow, and though he technically will be competing with Josh Wilson, D’Angelo Jimenez, Tony Womack, Bernie Castro and Joe Thurston for one backup infielder’s spot, he already seems to have the inside track.

“He’s ahead of those guys,” Acta said. “The numbers are there. This guy hit .270 last year and played on the World Series champ club. He’s got the track record. I think it’s safe to say this guy is on our club.”

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