- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Some look at Cristian Guzman’s stellar spring and see a surprise. Jim Bowden looks at it and sees the player he paid for three years ago.

It has been tough to assume that player is still there after a succession of nightmarish seasons. And it’s always easy to manufacture optimism this time of year.

But Bowden, who gave the shortstop a four-year, $16.8 million deal shortly after he became the Washington Nationals’ general manager in 2004, sounds like he’s about ready to cash in on that investment.

“The first half of last year, he was making plays. It was the same thing last spring,” Bowden said. “His best years should be ahead of him.”

That’s a bold statement, considering Guzman has only played 46 games since hitting .219 in his first season with the Nationals. Everything the shortstop has done this spring, however, would back it up.

Guzman is hitting .412, leads the team with 10 RBI and homered from both sides of the plate Sunday against Cleveland. That, coupled with the numbers he put up in 46 games last season after having Lasik surgery (a .328 average and .380 on-base percentage), has the Nationals optimistic Guzman can be the force that helped the Minnesota Twins win three division titles from 2002 to 2004.

“I know it’s not easy for me, but some things happen,” he said. “I’m healthy this year, so I want to be able to play 162 games — come every day to the stadium and do something.”

Guzman, who turns 30 on March 21, has dealt with struggles and setbacks since coming to the District. He was an All-Star with the Twins in 2001, but his career average and on-base percentage playing on grass both rank more than 20 points lower than his marks on turf.

And switching from the Metrodome’s fast surface and quirky bounces to RFK Stadium, Guzman struggled to adjust.

“I think what people don’t realize — there are players that when they go from the American to National League, there’s an adjustment with pitchers,” Bowden said. “He went from turf to grass, American to National, then he started off bad and got booed.”

The shortstop missed all of 2006 with a torn labrum. He pulled a hamstring early in 2007, excelled for two months, then tore a ligament in his thumb playing in the field.

Those two months, though, gave Washington its best glimpse of Guzman’s potential. He was on pace to match his career high in walks, and he tripled six times in 46 games — a number evocative of his 20-triple season in 2000.

The free-swinging Guzman has never been a prototypical leadoff hitter, but he showed better discipline at the plate last season. He said his thumb is about 95 percent healthy and his improved vision has paid off at the plate and in the field.

That’s enough to sell manager Manny Acta on some hope.

“I know the track record doesn’t indicate his on-base percentage is going to be up there, but I’d rather think about what he did last year,” Acta said. “Whether it’s too late for him to change the way he swings and has his at-bats, we’ll see. But as long as he gets on base good enough for us to [put him] in the leadoff spot, he’ll be there.”

But the reality is if Guzman has a big year, it will put Bowden in a tough spot. The shortstop will earn $4.2 million this season, which looks like a bargain in baseball’s market, and the Nationals’ farm system is at least two years from churning out a quality replacement.

Bowden said the team would weigh its options on Guzman after the season. He’s just hoping Guzman can have the kind of year he feels has been in the offing all along.

“All I know is since he had the [Lasik] surgery, all he’s done is hit .300,” Bowden said. “Obviously, a healthy Cristian Guzman makes you a better team.”

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