- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — For all the problems the Washington Nationals are facing this spring, there’s one potential issue that hasn’t ever really surfaced: Felipe Lopez’s conversion from shortstop to second base.

It could have been a tenuous situation, a former All-Star shortstop moving to the other side of the infield to make room for Cristian Guzman. But it never developed, and as the Nationals enter their final week in Florida, Lopez is just about the last thing on anyone’s mind.

“That’s been the most pleasant surprise to me, because I thought that would be one of the major issues of spring training,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “It wasn’t publicly a concern, but for us baseball people, that was the one area you really don’t know. And it was answered very quickly by Felipe.”

Indeed it was. Lopez has looked so smooth in the field this spring, it has been easy to forget he has only played 12 of his 576 career games at second base.

Lopez, 26, insists the transition hasn’t been easy. He worked hard this winter to learn the new angles, cut-off locations and intricacies of his new position so he could show up at spring training ready for the challenge.

“I worked hard,” he said. “I worked hard with [manager] Manny [Acta] and different instructors. I just feel more comfortable now.”

The conversion process could have been far more difficult, particularly if Lopez hadn’t been so agreeable to the move. Acquired last summer from Cincinnati, where he was an All-Star the previous year, he played exclusively at shortstop in Washington. And while the results weren’t superb — 14 errors in 71 games — Lopez was tabbed by club officials as an important piece of their rebuilding project.

So when the Nationals traded Jose Vidro to Seattle in December and announced that Lopez would move to second base, the situation could have turned dicey. Already an established major league shortstop, Lopez didn’t have to agree to the switch, and he certainly didn’t have to embrace it.

Yet he did. He told Acta he’d make the move and hasn’t questioned it since.

“I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it,” Lopez said. “I’ve got nothing to complain about. I’m in the big leagues, starting. I like to play short, but right now they need me at second.”

Lopez has rarely looked uncomfortable in the field this spring. His biggest concern has been handling cutoffs and relay throws from the other side of the field, but he’s spent considerable time working on that and now says, “I feel really good about it. I’ve got it down.”

Acta’s bigger concern is getting Lopez’s bat going. He entered last night’s game against the Atlanta Braves hitting only .167 with two walks and one stolen base. The Nationals need better production from the man who will set the table this season, but they have every reason to believe he’ll turn things around.

Hitting primarily from the second spot in the lineup following the trade last summer, Lopez batted .281, stole 21 bases and reached base at an impressive .362 clip with the Nationals.

When Alfonso Soriano left via free agency, Lopez became Washington’s everyday leadoff man. The club doesn’t foresee any problems with that change in roles. And five weeks into his new career as a second baseman, there don’t seem to be any problems, either.

“All the credit goes to him,” Acta said. “He has embraced that. He has worked so hard at that. Lopey has played around the horn before. He’s always been open to it. I’ve known the kid for a long time, and he’s always been gifted defensively. He struggled last year, but he has the tools to be a great defensive player.”

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