- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The moves came fast and furious yesterday, and the ensuing chain reaction produced this result: The Washington Nationals’ Opening Day roster is practically set.

Dmitri Young will be the starting first baseman. Nook Logan almost certainly will start the season on the disabled list. Ryan Church will take over in center field. Kory Casto will make the club and probably start in left field over Chris Snelling.

Four of the five spots in the starting rotation are locked up (John Patterson, Shawn Hill, Matt Chico and Jerome Williams). The fifth will be filled by Jason Simontacchi once his injured groin heals, and he will be replaced until then by either Jason Bergmann or Levale Speigner.

All that came into focus yesterday after the Nationals cut seven players from their major league camp: first baseman Travis Lee, right-handers Tim Redding and Joel Hanrahan, left-hander Mike Bacsik, infielders D’Angelo Jimenez and Joe Thurston and catcher Juan Brito. That leaves Washington with 28 remaining healthy players and only a couple of final decisions to make in the final week before Opening Day.

“I like my team,” manager Manny Acta said. “I like what I have. And I feel like they’re getting the message about what we want done over here.”

Perhaps the most noteworthy event yesterday was the resolution of the Nationals’ six-week-long search for Nick Johnson’s replacement at first base. In the end, the club will go with Young, the well-traveled slugger, over Lee, who asked for and received his unconditional release.

Young, 33, won the job despite joining the Nationals only eight days ago after working his way back into shape at the club’s minor league complex. Following a tumultuous 2006 in which he was charged with domestic abuse, admitted to an alcohol rehabilitation facility, released by the Detroit Tigers and diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, the slugger finds himself back in the major leagues with a full-time starting job.

“That was my goal,” said Young, who is hitting .286 (6-for-21) in eight games this spring. “I was at the bottom of the mountain, Mount Everest, and I climbed my way up, one day at a time, knowing that I had to work. It wasn’t going to be given to me by any stretch, and I had to work. … I did everything it would take to earn it.”

Young won’t be the only surprise in Acta’s Opening Day lineup. After Logan suffered a groin strain Saturday — an injury Acta said will keep Logan out “at least two weeks” — the Nationals’ outfield will have a new look. Church will move from left field to center field, and Casto likely will start in left field as a rookie.

Acta said he hasn’t decided for sure whether Casto (who has never played above Class AA) or Snelling will win the job, but the manager sounded yesterday like he wants to go with the rookie.

“I think we’re leaning more toward finding out what Casto can really do up here because of his age and what he represents for our organization,” he said. “If Casto’s going to be here, he’s going to play.”

Acta also confirmed what had been known for several days: Hill, Chico and Williams have secured spots in the rotation behind Patterson, though the No. 5 job remains unsettled.

Simontacchi earned the spot with his performance in three spring starts, but he has missed the last 11 days with a strained right groin muscle and according to Acta is “not going to start the season with us.”

Until the veteran right-hander returns, the Nationals will go with either Bergmann (who made six starts last season and is scheduled to start today against the Detroit Tigers) or Speigner (a Rule 5 draftee who can start or relieve) as the last member of a rotation that finally took shape after a wide-open camp competition.

“We’re pleased with that progress and what they’ve done,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “Now, that doesn’t mean they’re going to do it when the bell rings. You still have to perform up north. But what was done in spring training? I’m pleased with the job that those five have done.”

Two strong rotation candidates when camp opened six weeks ago were officially eliminated yesterday, with Redding outrighted and Hanrahan optioned to Class AAA Columbus.

Washington’s bench also has taken shape now that Jimenez and Thurston have been reassigned to minor league camp. Acta will go with rookie catcher Jesus Flores, infielders Ronnie Belliard and Josh Wilson, utilityman Robert Fick and the non-starter between Snelling and Casto as his backup outfielder.

It’s possible the Nationals will keep Abraham Nunez as a fifth outfielder but only if they decide to carry 11 pitchers instead of 12. If they go with 12, three relievers remain in the mix for the last spot: Chris Booker, Saul Rivera and Jesus Colome.

“The roster will be finalized by Opening Day,” Bowden said. “It won’t be finalized before then. We don’t know if there’s going to be a trade. We don’t know if there’s going to be an injury between now and then. So no final decisions have been made.”

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