- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2009

As the Washington Nationals‘ fifth spring training begins in Viera, Fla., there’s little about the team’s outlook that appears the same as it did a week ago. The team capped an otherwise pedestrian offseason with a televised news conference, touting slugger Adam Dunn as the game-changing bat it desperately needed and the chief reason for fans to give the team another chance in the wake of a 102-loss season that derailed its progress.

Now they’ll put all that rhetoric behind and get to work, with competition for spots looking much more heated than it would have before the Dunn signing. With a new coaching staff setting out to establish itself and several mainstays trying to fight off new acquisitions for starting jobs, there are few members of the team without something to prove.

Those competitions, the ones that the team hopes will propel it back to relevance in 2009, headline the stories to watch this spring:

1. Who’s on first?

We know it’s a tired reference, but the old gag just became a lot more relevant to the Nationals, who must decide whether they will put slugger Adam Dunn at first or let Nick Johnson try to prove he’s recovered from right wrist surgery. Johnson said this week he will have to play with his wrist taped up most of the season but added he’s been swinging without limitations all week in Viera. The hunch here is the Nationals start the season with Johnson on first and Dunn in the outfield, which leads us to…

2. Two outfielders too many?

If Dunn lands in left field, it likely forces Josh Willingham to the bench, where he’ll join Austin Kearns in a fight for playing time. Among those three players, along with Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, the outfield is so crowded that Wily Mo Pena needs to have a phenomenal spring even to make the team. Willie Harris can also play the outfield, so Pena is probably out of luck. And since the Nationals don’t want to take playing time away from Milledge and Dukes, it probably leaves Willingham and Kearns on the outside looking in.

3. The fight for fifth

The Nationals’ starting rotation is another spot that looks a lot more crowded headed into spring training than it did a month ago. John Lannan and Scott Olsen are virtual locks to start, with Daniel Cabrera still a heavy favorite to earn a spot. The signing of Odalis Perez, who performed admirably last season for the Nationals, means there’s only one spot up for grabs unless one of the veterans falter. And that spot is probably going to Collin Balester, which means it will be a while before we see Jordan Zimmermann in the majors. As for Jason Bergmann and Shawn Hill? Well, the two promising yet inconsistent right-handers are probably headed for the bullpen.

4. Any more moves?

The Nationals’ roster is stocked with options in some spots (outfield, first base), short on proven options in others (second base, bullpen) and saddled with undesirable contracts in a few instances. That kind of an incongruous look, especially with general manager Jim Bowden at the helm, could mean another trade or free agent signing by the end of March. Bowden said he was happy with the level of competition at second base, all but ruling out a play to sign Orlando Hudson. But if the team could find a decent return for Johnson or Kearns, it’s tough to see Bowden passing up a deal.

5. What’s next for Dukes?

The mercurial talent could be on the verge of a breakout year, especially with a better lineup, but with Dukes there’s always a question or two to be answered. He comes into the season as the prohibitive favorite to start in right field unless the Nationals move him to center. But he also had three separate injuries to his right leg last season, and he’s got another court date scheduled during spring training surrounding his ongoing child support issues. If Dukes can stay healthy and out of trouble, it could be a big year. With him, it’s always likely to be eventful, one way or the other.

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