- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

JUPITER, Fla. — There’s obviously the competition for rotation spots, a wide-open battle royale that has been the focal point of spring training. And there’s also the three-way fight for the starting first base job, which has received its own fair amount of press.

There is, however, another roster battle playing out in Washington Nationals camp this spring. It may not grab as much attention as those others, but it may be no less important to the team’s fortunes.

It’s the battle for the last spot on manager Manny Acta’s bench, and it’s just as wide-open as the other two races.

“We have a lot of competition for that 25th spot,” general manager Jim Bowden said.

And there doesn’t appear to be a clear front-runner from a list of candidates that is at least five deep and possibly more.

With the Nationals committed to carrying 12 pitchers, and with four spots on the bench essentially locked up (catcher Jesus Flores, infielder Ronnie Belliard, outfielder Chris Snelling and utilityman Robert Fick), there’s probably only one more job available. And there’s no shortage of candidates for that job, each with his own merits:

• Josh Wilson, a middle infielder who is hitting .409 this spring and has shown significant improvement in the field over the last week.

• D’Angelo Jimenez, another middle infielder who is hitting .300 this spring but has committed a team-high four errors.

• Abraham Nunez, an outfielder who was hitting .313 with two homers until going 0-for-5 yesterday.

• Michael Restovich, another power-hitting outfielder who has struggled at the plate but has wowed onlookers with his mammoth shots during batting practice.

• Jose Macias, a veteran utilityman who can play three infield and all three outfield positions, which only helps his cause.

Actually, versatility will play a big role on the entire Washington bench, with Bowden and Acta expecting everyone but Flores to be able to handle multiple positions in the field.

“It helps because we’re still on track to take 12 pitchers with us,” Acta said. “That’s a big plus.”

It takes a certain kind of player to be able to juggle different roles at the same time, and not everyone is willing to embrace the job. Perhaps that’s what makes a guy like Fick, who can catch and play first base and right field, so valuable.

Deep down, Fick would prefer to be an everyday first baseman. But he knows the Nationals need him to be able to do it all.

“It’s a lot easier for me to accept it because I’m an older player,” said Fick, who turns 33 today. “For a younger guy, usually they’re a prospect and they’ve only been playing one position, and now they’re asked to come to the big leagues and play shortstop, second base and third base. It’s tougher for them.”

Macias, 35, knows the feeling. He has played 540 games in the field over seven major league seasons but hasn’t played more than 211 games at any single position. That versatility, though, could make him an attractive candidate for a spot on the Nationals’ bench because the team is looking for backups at both shortstop and in center field. Macias can play both.

“I think it will help a little bit,” he said. “They know Manny can use me anywhere he wants to: second base, shortstop, third base, anywhere in the outfield. They know I can play all those positions.”

The Nationals’ biggest need is at shortstop, with Cristian Guzman coming back from major shoulder surgery. Belliard could replace him in a pinch, and second baseman Felipe Lopez could slide over if needed, but Washington would prefer to have a better defensive shortstop on its bench.

That’s where Wilson might fit into the picture. The scrappy 25-year-old looked overwhelmed earlier this spring, struggling in the field and at the plate, but he has settled down since then and has become one of the team’s hottest hitters while making several sharp plays at shortstop.

“I had a few mistakes I made out there, but that just comes with coming back from the offseason and getting back into game shape,” he said. “I’ve definitely started feeling more comfortable now that I’ve gotten back into game action.”

So maybe Wilson’s the answer. Unless the Nationals would prefer to carry a true fifth outfielder, in which case Nunez or Restovich look like viable options. And what about Alex Escobar, the oft-injured, always-tantalizing option who hasn’t played in the field yet but is hitting .429 as a DH?

There are so many factors to consider, Bowden can’t even list them all off in a single breath.

“I think it’s important on a good bench to have two good left-handed pinch-hitters,” the GM said. “You’ve got to have one good right-handed pinch-hitter. You want to have power off the bench. You have to have defense off the bench. Being able to prepare for an injury to everybody on the diamond is extremely important. Makeup and character are important on the bench.”

In other words, there is no one right answer.

At least the Nationals have 18 more days to figure it out.

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