Monday, December 13, 2004

ANAHEIM, Calif. — As they sat in their hotel suite at the baseball winter meetings this weekend, Washington Nationals interim general manager Jim Bowden turned to Frank Robinson and asked him what his Opening Day lineup will look like.

Robinson’s reply: “I don’t know.”

“I don’t think about that right now,” the 69-year-old manager said. “It’s too early. I’d rather wait and see what pans out and what we have in spring training.”

Perhaps in due time, Robinson will learn that Washingtonians are by nature an impatient lot. They wait until Election Day 2004 is five minutes old before beginning to speculate who will run in 2008. They wait one day after the NFL season is over before guessing whom the Redskins will take in the first round of April’s draft.

And though pitchers and catchers don’t report to Viera, Fla., for another two months, the jazzed-up Nationals fan base is already projecting who will be in Robinson’s lineup April4 in Philadelphia.

Barring any dramatic changes — and based on Bowden’s decidedly undramatic four days at the winter meetings, there don’t appear to be many more changes coming — Washington’s starting nine is beginning to take shape. And assuming everyone stays healthy, it’s not a bad-looking lineup.

“We are still a little thin,” Robinson said over the weekend, “but we could put a pretty good eight players [plus a pitcher] out there right now.”

Robinson’s toughest decision might be who to bat first. Center fielder Endy Chavez, who stole 32 bases and had six triples in 2004, is the closest player the Nationals have to a prototypical leadoff man. But Chavez doesn’t draw many walks and had a disappointing .318 on-base percentage last year.

Robinson’s best leadoff hitter in 2004 was actually one of his best power hitters: left fielder/first baseman Brad Wilkerson, who clubbed 32 homers and 39 doubles but drew 106 walks and reached base at a .374 clip.

Though conventional wisdom says Wilkerson would be more productive in the middle of the batting order, he may have a future as a rare, home-run hitting leadoff man.

“When I put him lower in the lineup, he hasn’t been as productive,” Robinson said. “So maybe that is his niche, being at the top of the lineup. I just kick myself that I put him up there a little late [in 2003] when we were in the wild-card race.”

Robinson also must decide where to play him in the field. Wilkerson, a versatile player who committed just seven errors last year, is best in left field, but he actually made 27 more appearances at first base in 2004 in place of the injured Nick Johnson.

Johnson, a promising hitter who has been beset by injuries, is likely slated to start at first base … if he’s still with the club come April. He’s eligible for arbitration and stands to make as much as $2million this year, so Bowden has listened to trade offers and also could consider not tendering him a contract before Monday’s deadline.

The heart and soul of the Expos’ lineup for years has been Jose Vidro, and the All-Star second baseman should retain that role in Washington. Vidro, though, is coming off August knee surgery and could take things easy in spring training. If he’s healthy, he will bat third and be a key contributor.

Robinson could juggle the middle of the lineup on a daily basis, with Wilkerson, Vidro, right fielder Jose Guillen and third baseman Vinny Castilla all candidates to bat cleanup. Guillen, who hit .294 with 27 homers and 104 RBI for the Angels last year, is the likely No.4 hitter, with Castilla (.271, 35 homers, 131 RBI for the Rockies) batting fifth.

Johnson would then bat sixth, though Robinson frequently could choose to move Wilkerson to first base and start explosive youngster Terrmel Sledge (15 homers, 62 RBI as a rookie) in left field.

The bottom of the order is set, with catcher Brian Schneider (.257, 12 homers, 49 RBI) batting seventh and shortstop Cristian Guzman (.274, eight homers, 46 RBI with the Twins) batting eighth.

Though Bowden continues to hold out hope he can sign a veteran starting pitcher to help anchor his rotation, he left town yesterday without one. Even if the Nationals land a quality arm, it’s unlikely anyone will unseat Livan Hernandez as the staff ace and Opening Day starter.

An often-underappreciated workhorse, Hernandez led the majors with nine complete games last year and threw a whopping 255 innings. His 11-15 record was a product of poor run support, as evidenced by his more-than-respectable 3.60 ERA.

For all those reasons, the right-hander is a safe bet to be on the mound at Citizens Bank Park to throw the Nationals’ first pitch.

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