Wednesday, February 16, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Don’t count Frank Robinson among those who say the Nationals have no chance of surpassing the .500 mark during their first season in Washington.

The Nationals manager has the highest of expectations for his ballclub, higher than he did his first two seasons in Montreal when the Expos surprised everyone by going 83-79 both years.

“I expect this team to play better baseball than 83 wins,” Robinson said yesterday on the day pitchers and catchers reported for spring training. “I think we have more talent overall. I think this is the best all-around defensive team I’ve ever been around as a manager. We’ll be solid at every position defensively, and that helps you win ballgames. So I feel like this team is capable of winning more than 83 ballgames.”

Robinson will be hard-pressed to find others around baseball who share his sentiments. As much as most agree the renamed Nationals are markedly improved from the 67-95 squad that left Montreal in October, few think they have a realistic shot in the ultra-competitive National League East.

The division’s other four teams ” the Braves, Mets, Phillies and Marlins ” all made major offseason moves and will boast payrolls considerably higher than Washington’s projected $47 million.

Robinson, though, likes the look of the club interim general manager Jim Bowden assembled this winter and believes it will be better than any of his previous three Expos teams.

“I don’t look at our division any other way than I have the other times,” he said. “It’s a tough division. It’s gotten tougher. But I feel like we’ve improved and gotten better. It’s up to us to go out on the field and perform.”

Vidro slowly progressing

Second baseman Jose Vidro said he’s encouraged by his recovery from knee surgery and insists he will be ready for Opening Day.

“I’m almost there,” said Vidro, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Sept. 8. “I’m going to be able to play this spring and this season. I’ve made a lot of progress. This is my third week [in Viera] already. I’ve been doing a lot of work, and it’s paid off. I don’t want to go on the [disabled list] anymore.”

The franchise’s longest tenured and most reliable player, Vidro, 30, has been limited mostly to strength and conditioning drills since arriving in Florida last week. Team doctors will have a better idea of Vidro’s status once he takes his physical today with the rest of the club, but it appears the Nationals want him to take things slowly.

Does that mean Vidro will be in uniform for Washington’s exhibition opener March 2?

“That’s one of the things me and the trainers are going to discuss,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes. It’s a process. Even if I say I’m 100 percent, they’re not going to let me go 100 percent out there with the rest of the guys. But they know more about this than me, and they will listen to me and see how things are going. It’s more important to get in shape than to play in games.”

Extra bases

Though four pitchers were not present at camp yesterday, all were accounted for and are expected to be in uniform for tomorrow’s first workout. Livan Hernandez checked in from his home in South Florida, Tony Armas Jr. arrived yesterday in Miami and Tomo Ohka was on a plane from Japan. Antonio Osuna cleared up his visa problems but was forced to stay in Mexico after getting word his father was ill. …

Six position players already have reported: Vidro, first baseman Nick Johnson, outfielders Brad Wilkerson, Alex Escobar and Ryan Church and infielder Henry Mateo. Position players are not required to report until Sunday. …

The Nationals traded infielder Alejandro Machado to the Boston Red Sox for a player to be named. Machado had been designated for assignment Sunday to make room for newly acquired outfielder Alex Escobar.

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