- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — The day Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, the bar for success in 2008 was already set.

“I think that we’re ready to win more games than we lose,” general manager Jim Bowden said.

Yes, the same team that arrived at Space Coast Stadium one year ago hoping not to lose 100 games now finds itself talking about 82 or more wins.

“Of course, that takes a lot of young players to step up to do,” Bowden said. “But I think they’re capable of doing that.”

Buoyed by their surprising 73-89 performance last season and a busy offseason in which they acquired Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Paul Lo Duca and others, the Nationals are confident as they gather in Florida.

They’re no longer content merely to compete with the rest of the National League. They expect to win.

“What did we have, 73 last year? I don’t think we should be looking for 74, 75,” right-hander Shawn Hill said. “We should be looking for 81, 85, somewhere in there.”

The first day of spring training is always a day for optimism. There isn’t a team in Florida or Arizona that doesn’t believe it will win.

But these Nationals may be justified in feeling good about themselves.

After three seasons of mediocrity in the District, the Nationals could be on the upswing. A new ballpark is nearing completion on South Capitol Street. A farm system that not long ago was considered baseball’s worst now ranks ninth. And a roster that once was littered with journeymen and rookies not ready for the major leagues now boasts a core group of talented young players alongside some strategically placed veterans.

“We’re getting there,” Bowden said during a lengthy media session in his office yesterday morning. “We’re certainly not where we want to be yet, but we’re very pleased with the progress we’re making.”

There are still plenty of questions over the next six weeks, perhaps most significantly a potential logjam at first base involving Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young.

Johnson, who has not played since breaking his right femur on Sept. 23, 2006, has lost 25 pounds, has been taking grounders and swinging in the batting cage and yesterday said he expects to be in the lineup on Opening Night.

“Yeah, I should be ready,” he said, then amending his statement. “I will be ready, let’s put it that way.”

The Nationals won’t make any such proclamation, at least not until team officials see Johnson on the field in game situations.

But what then? What if Johnson (perhaps Washington’s best all-around player in 2006) is in top form, with Young (the reigning NL Comeback Player of the Year) also on board?

Bowden acknowledged yesterday the possibility that one or both first basemen could be traded. He didn’t rule out the possibility of either Young or Johnson accepting a reserve role, but he knows that may not be plausible.

“They’re both everyday players,” Bowden said. “If they’re both healthy, logically, it may be possible that one has to be moved to make that work. It doesn’t mean we’re going to. It’s certainly something we have to look at.”

Questions also abound in Washington’s rotation, with no truly established starters in place but several high-potential arms in the mix.

Bowden listed Hill, John Patterson (attempting to come back from two years of arm injuries), Jason Bergmann, John Lannan, Matt Chico, Tim Redding, Tyler Clippard, Collin Balester and Garrett Mock as those pitchers competing for five Opening Day slots.

Though the Nationals discussed signing a veteran free agent or even trading for one of the prominent starting pitchers on the block this winter, Bowden said neither tactic made sense at this stage of the franchise’s development.

“We made the decision to give the ball to the young kids and give young pitchers opportunities to develop a staff from within,” he said. “And that’s what we’re doing. We’re staying on our plan. We haven’t deviated from it.”

Nationals players have embraced that plan, especially those who were a part of last year’s team that went 64-64 over the final 4½ months.

Which may explain why so many of the faces that wandered through the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse yesterday had bright eyes and wide smiles.

“We know we can play, and we added pieces that I think [make us] a better team,” Hill said. “We played .500 for the remainder of the season, from May [11] on, we know we can build on it. We go into this season thinking we can do at least that. That’s our goal, if not better.”

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