- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Manny Acta sat behind the desk in his office at Space Coast Stadium yesterday morning, perused his Washington Nationals roster on the eve of the team’s first spring training game and made the following remark:

“Love that lineup,” the rookie manager said. “Are we going to hold them? We’ll see.”

Acta will begin to determine that today, when his Nationals travel to Vero Beach to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in their Grapefruit League opener. After two weeks of crisp workouts and two days of intrasquad games, the competition for four open rotation spots now begins in earnest.

By the time the club breaks camp and heads north on March 28, Acta can only hope four qualified arms have emerged from the pack to join ace John Patterson in forming a competitive rotation.

The process will be both brief and drawn-out. With so many pitchers in the mix, several will have to be weaned within the next 10 days. But the remaining six or seven true competitors can’t be judged on only one or two spring outings, so the final decisions likely won’t come until much later this month.

“I don’t think the first one out of the gate should be make-or-break,” said right-hander Shawn Hill, who starts today’s game. “I want to make an impression, obviously. But I don’t think I have to go and strike out all six guys I face or anything.”

No, but anyone who has visions of cracking Washington’s Opening Day rotation knows he can’t wait forever to get results.

Acta, general manager Jim Bowden and pitching coach Randy St. Claire already have started forming opinions of everyone in the mix, based on bullpen sessions, live batting practice and this week’s intrasquad games.

Anyone who didn’t take those early-spring days seriously could regret it later.

“People like to say, well they’re just intrasquad games. They’re just tuning us up for game situations,” right-hander Tim Redding said. “But if it didn’t mean anything, Manny wouldn’t have been sitting out there and Randy wouldn’t be out there. It might not mean something as far as the competition to see what’s going on, but it means something for the players. You want to go out there and perform.”

Redding, once a top prospect with the Houston Astros, is one of several competing pitchers with significant major league experience. He and three others (Jason Simontacchi, Jerome Williams and Colby Lewis) have 10-win seasons on their big league resumes, qualifications that should help their standing in this race.

But track records will only go so far in the Nationals’ evaluation process.

“You’re still going to have to show [an ability to pitch] in spring training,” Acta said. “We’re not just going to hand it out because some time ago you won 10 games.”

And for an organization dead-set on building a championship-caliber team for the long haul, the allure of younger, less-experienced arms might be more appealing. To that end, several rookies and other 20-somethings are being given strong consideration.

Two names have repeatedly been cited by team officials and Nationals catchers for looking particularly good so far this spring: Hill and Matt Chico.

Hill, 25, is completely healthy two years removed from major elbow surgery and is throwing the ball as well or better than anyone in camp. There seems to be a sense around the clubhouse that he’s a strong bet to make the rotation as long as his arm continues to hold up, and Hill is approaching this as though a spot is his for the taking.

“I’m not worried about how Tim or Matt or Jerome or any of those guys are throwing,” he said. “Basically, the competition’s with myself.”

Chico, 23, has shown an assortment of pitches and a mature mental state for a left-hander with only 17 games of experience at Class AA. The Nationals will be cautious not to rush Chico, but they won’t be afraid to put him in a major league uniform next month if they feel he’s ready.

If any of the aforementioned contenders doesn’t seize the opportunity, there is no shortage of others hoping to jump into the fray. Rookie right-handers Beltran Perez and Joel Hanrahan have upside, lefty Billy Traber and righty Jason Bergmann have major league experience with the Nationals and veterans Chris Michalak and Mike Bacsik have years of experience.

All 12 of them know they have a shot to make it to Washington. All 12 know the competition starts now. And all 12 know that only five will be standing come March 28.

“Everybody knows that,” Simontacchi said. “If you don’t know there’s only four guys getting a shot … well, everybody just needs to do their job to be prepared every time they get the ball. That’s it.”

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.


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