- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — There’s the longtime prospect still waiting for his first crack at the big leagues, the veteran with a smooth glove and the troubled former All-Star trying to work his way back into the limelight.

Despite the perception one player has an edge on anyone else heading into March, the Washington Nationals insist their starting first base job is wide open.

“No, this is a competition,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “Larry Broadway and Travis Lee and Dmitri Young. Someone’s going to win the job based on what they do here, not on what they’ve done in the past.”

The prevailing belief around camp has been that Broadway is the Nationals’ preferred choice to fill in for Nick Johnson until the latter returns (at an undetermined date) from a broken right leg. And in a perfect world, Bowden and manager Manny Acta would hand the job over to Broadway, a 26-year-old with the track record in the minor leagues to suggest he’s ready for the next step.

But no one truly knows whether Broadway is ready. His minor league numbers over a five-year span (a .284 average with 74 homers, 282 RBI and a .366 on-base percentage) are good but not great. He has dealt with some injury problems. And he struggled to hit this winter while playing in Venezuela, in part prompting Bowden to sign Lee and Young as viable alternatives at first base.

Then again, there doesn’t seem to be much left for Broadway to prove in the minors.

“I’ve seen big league pitching down there,” he said. “I’ve put in my time. I feel like I’m ready to at least get the opportunity, just to see if I can play up here.”

He will get plenty of opportunities throughout the next month, serving as Acta’s regular first baseman through the exhibition season. And he knows he will be watched closely every time he steps to the plate by major league coaches and front-office officials who must decide whether he has taken the necessary steps to crack the 25-man roster.

“What I really need to show them to get to the next level are consistent plate appearances,” Broadway said. “Not necessarily hitting .500 in spring training. That’s not my goal. Well, maybe that’s what they want to see. I don’t know. But my goal is to see pitches, swing at the ones I want to and try to have a plan and execute it. That’s all I can do.”

If the Nationals don’t like what they see from Broadway, they won’t hesitate to look to their two other options at first base. Neither Lee nor Young possesses the potential to be as complete a player as Broadway, but each has his merits.

Lee, 31, was once among the highest-rated prospects in baseball and was expected to be the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks’ starting first baseman for a decade. But aside from his sterling defensive work, he never has turned into the offensive force most expected. In nine major league seasons with the Diamondbacks, Phillies, Devil Rays and Yankees, he never has hit higher than .275, never hit more than 22 homers and only once drove in more than 72 runs.

So he’s forever been labeled as a weak-hitting, strong-fielding first baseman.

“If I’m not hitting 20 or 30 homers, obviously they’re going to put that tag on me,” said Lee, who signed a minor league deal this winter that will pay him $500,000 if he makes Washington’s roster. “I’ve just got to go out there and hit the ball and play the defense I can play.”

Meanwhile, Young is a force with the bat who just hopes he can slide by in the field without costing his team any games. The 33-year-old is a career .289 hitter and 2003 All-Star who nearly gave up on baseball after a string of off-the-field maladies last season that included 30 days in an alcohol rehabilitation center, charges of domestic abuse against his former girlfriend and the discovery he has Type 2 diabetes.

But Bowden, a longtime admirer of Young, decided to give him a second chance and brought him to the Nationals’ minor league camp with an eye toward the big leagues if he can get himself back into shape.

Young’s task this spring is clear in his mind.

“Come here and show them that I still have it,” he said. “They’re trying to put together a team to go out there and compete this year, and they want their best man. I want to come here and do what they ask and show them that I can still play.”

For the most part, both Lee and Young are known quantities at this stage of their respective careers. Neither is suddenly going to become something he never was, but neither is suddenly going to lose his skills .

So this three-way competition ultimately seems to come down to this: Is Broadway ready for the job? And if not, is this his last chance with the organization?

“I wouldn’t say last chance. I would say best chance,” Broadway said. “Definitely this is the chance to leave a lasting impression here. They’ve told me it’s going to be my shot to do it, and I want to show them I’m ready to answer the bell.”

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