- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — After four weeks of workouts, meetings, drills and exhibition games, the Washington Nationals took a breather yesterday. The team’s lone day off of spring training was a welcome relief for players and coaches who have spent the last 28 days waking up at dawn and trudging to the ballpark for another round of repetitive drudgery.

Manager Manny Acta gave everyone the day off. No one was required to show up at Space Coast Stadium. Acta went home to nearby St. Cloud to spend time with his family. Brian Schneider drove to nearby Palm Beach Gardens to see his wife and newborn daughter. Other players planned to go to the beach, play golf or just sleep in.

It was a perfect time to reflect on the events of the last month and look ahead to the final two weeks of camp before the Nationals head north and commence the 162-game marathon.

There as no shortage of questions facing this club when pitchers and catchers reported, major issues that needed to be resolved over the course of spring training. But upon revisiting the top five questions posed on the first day of camp, it’s striking to note that none has been answered particularly to the Nationals’ liking. …

Who’s in the rotation?

The primary story line of the spring remains a major question mark. When camp opened, 12 pitchers were in the running for four open spots behind ace John Patterson. But only three of the contenders appear to have been removed from the equation: left-hander Chris Michalak (who was re-assigned to minor league camp Monday), Beltran Perez and Billy Traber (who have only been looked at as relievers to date).

That leaves nine pitchers still officially in the running, and only one of those (Shawn Hill) has separated himself from the pack and essentially secured himself a spot on the roster.

Two others (rookie Matt Chico and journeyman Jason Simontacchi) have pitched well enough to become front-runners at this point, though neither is assured of anything. Right-handers Jason Bergmann and Levale Speigner, neither of whom was given a fighting chance a month ago, have pitched well and thrown themselves into the mix.

The biggest disappointments, though, are the four experienced right-handers signed by general manager Jim Bowden over the winter. Tim Redding, Jerome Williams, Joel Hanrahan and Colby Lewis all figured to be strong contenders, but those four have combined to post a 17.36 ERA this spring while allowing 32 hits and 12 walks over 14 total innings.

When will Johnson play?

That remains to be determined. When Nick Johnson broke his right leg in late September, team doctors predicted he would be ready for Opening Day. As soon as the 28-year-old first baseman walked into the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse, it became obvious there was no chance of that happening.

Johnson remains nowhere close to being able to play in the major leagues. He has increased his physical workload to the point where he’s now walking briskly around the warning track and up and down stadium aisles, but he hasn’t begun jogging yet.

Johnson threw out June as a potential return date, but few believe that’s possible. At minimum, it appears he’ll be out until the All-Star beak. It wouldn’t be surprising if he does not play at all this season.

In the wide-open race to replace Johnson at first base, rookie Larry Broadway and veteran Travis Lee both have looked good at times. Slugger Dmitri Young, still working his way back into shape at minor league camp, remains a strong possibility to win the job.

Who’s in left field?

This is the only major question that appears to have some resolution, with Acta repeatedly saying Ryan Church will be his everyday left fielder.

That vote of confidence has meant a lot to Church, a streaky player who just wants to be given 400 at-bats to show what he can do. But the 27-year-old hasn’t exactly taken the ball and run with it. He’s hitting just .190 with two RBI in nine exhibition games and admittedly has been preoccupied with his brother Matthew’s deployment to Iraq as an Army Ranger.

Acta continues to insist Church has the job, and Alex Escobar (forever plagued by injuries) has made no push to unseat him. But Chris Snelling (.294 with a team-high six RBI) and rookie Kory Casto (.333 with five walks) have played well this spring, and at some point Acta may have to decide whether either is a better option in left field.

Will Luis Ayala be ready?

The hard-throwing reliever is attempting to return from elbow ligament replacement surgery in only one year and continues to progress ahead of the typical pace for a pitcher coming back from that procedure. But Ayala still hasn’t thrown in a major league game, and if he doesn’t soon, he won’t be ready for Opening Day.

The Nationals continue to be cautious with their top setup man, and if need be, they won’t hesitate to leave Ayala on the disabled list to start the season and ask Jon Rauch and Ryan Wagner to assume his bullpen role.

What about Guzman?

Like Church, Cristian Guzman has been given a vote of confidence by Acta. However, the 29-year-old shortstop has taken his time coming back from major shoulder surgery and has yet to play in the field in a major league game.

Guzman has made progress and is expected to play five innings at shortstop today against the St. Louis Cardinals, but he’s running out of time to get into regular season shape. In five games as a designated hitter, he’s hitting .182.

Meanwhile, veteran infielder Ronnie Belliard continues to impress and pushes for more playing time. If push came to shove, would Acta be willing to make Belliard his starting second baseman, shift Felipe Lopez back to shortstop and bump Guzman to the bench?

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