- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

When Manny Acta scanned practice fields at Carl Barger Complex a year ago, he saw a Washington Nationals club loaded with uncertainty. He saw 37 pitchers, most of them unknown and unproven, fighting for 12 spots on the Opening Day roster. He saw injured veterans limping around camp, not knowing when they would be ready to play. And he saw a team that, while full of enthusiasm, wasn’t quite ready for primetime.

That won’t be the case this time around. When Acta scans those same practice fields in Viera, Fla., this weekend, he’ll see an improved Nationals squad that feels like it’s ready to take the next step.

“Last year we just had way too many question marks going into spring training,” said Acta, a second-year major league manager. “Now we feel like we do have a competitive team going into camp.”

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training today, and anyone who makes the trek down Interstate 95 to check out the local nine will find a host of new faces littered among the familiar ones.

Ryan Zimmerman, Chad Cordero and Austin Kearns will be there again, but so too will Lastings Milledge, Paul Lo Duca and Elijah Dukes, a trio of high-profile acquisitions who take over for Ryan Church, Brian Schneider and Nook Logan, respectively.

A bench that last season relied heavily on journeymen Tony Batista, Robert Fick and D’Angelo Jimenez now boasts proven commodities like Johnny Estrada, Aaron Boone and Rob Mackowiak.

The same starting rotation that held open auditions among more than a dozen hopefuls a year ago now looks much more stable. Jobs may still be up for grabs this spring, but there are clear front-runners, and the fallback options don’t look so bad.

“I just think so many elements are better than last year,” team president Stan Kasten said. “It’s really exciting.”

There are still plenty of questions that must be answered over the next six weeks. Though a club universally pegged as the majors’ worst when 2007 opened exceeded expectations, winning 73 games, it has a long way to go before it can entertain notions of challenging the league’s best.

First and foremost, the Nationals must assemble a healthy rotation, something they have not done the last two years. Team officials tout the potential of Shawn Hill, John Patterson and Jason Bergmann, but there’s always a caveat with those three: Can they avoid the disabled list?

All three missed extensive time because of injury last season, with Patterson having taken the mound only 15 total times since his breakthrough 2005 campaign because of a series of nerve problems in his throwing arm.

The 30-year-old right-hander said he’s healthy and strong at last, but given his track record, the Nationals won’t be convinced until they see him consistently perform in game situations.

There seem to be fewer concerns with Hill, the 26-year-old sinkerballer who last season offered glimpses of dominance sandwiched around injuries to his right elbow and left shoulder. Hill, too, says he’s healthy following surgery to address both problems and appears poised to earn the coveted Opening Day assignment.

“If we can have John Patterson back to his old self from 2005, and Shawn Hill is back healthy, that’s a pretty good 1-2 that is going to give you some competitiveness,” Acta said.

If Bergmann (who missed time last season with minor injuries) is healthy, he likely takes the third spot in the rotation. The final two jobs are open, though left-handers Matt Chico and John Lannan (who showed poise and consistency as rookies) and right-hander Tim Redding probably have a leg up on the rest of the masses entering camp.

And even if any of those pitchers fall through, the Nationals feel they have several quality backup options off a Class AAA Columbus rotation that could include some of the organization’s top prospects (Collin Balester, Garrett Mock, Tyler Clippard).

“I think you can identify 10 or maybe 12 names, between Washington and Columbus, that we’re pretty sure the five-man rotation is going to come out of,” Kasten said. “And we’re very happy with that. The best five of that group should be able to hold their own out here.”

This camp’s most pressing question, then, may not involve the pitching staff at all but the Nationals’ pending dilemma at first base. After missing all of 2007 while trying to recover from a broken right leg, Nick Johnson is healed and has been cleared to participate fully in drills. Perhaps Washington’s best all-around player before his frightening injury, Johnson normally would be guaranteed a job.

But the man who filled for Johnson, Dmitri Young, earned an All-Star selection, National League Comeback Player of the Year honors and a two-year extension. Thus, the Nationals find themselves with two established first basemen, making a combined $10.5 million and a starting job available for only one of them.

“We’re going to have to see if Nick’s able to perform at the level he was before,” Acta said. “And then at the end of camp, we’re going to have to make a decision.”

It’s a decision these new-look and confident Nationals are willing to have to make.

“If one of them has to be moved, then we’ll confront that at that time,” Kasten said. “But again, imagine asking me that this year compared with the questions I was being asked a year ago. If the questions are ‘What are you going to do with the excess of talent you have?’ we’ll figure out something to do.”

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