Monday, February 28, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Based on the number of jobs up for grabs in spring training, you would think the Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos were 95-67 last year instead of 67-95.

Nearly all of the regulars are locked in — a strange circumstance for a team that finished last in the National League East in 2004.

Of course, all of that is subject to players staying healthy this spring.

But for the most part, the moves general manager Jim Bowden made in the offseason attempted to correct what led to last year’s losing record, and a trio of new arrivals — third baseman Vinny Castilla, shortstop Cristian Guzman and outfielder Jose Guillen — are established players who are not being paid to fight for a job.

Along with the players who established themselves in Montreal — outfielder Brad Wilkerson, second baseman Jose Vidro and catcher Brian Schneider — and there is not much competition taking place in Viera, at least for the starting jobs.

In fact, when asked how many starting positions are open, Nationals manager Frank Robinson said just one — center field. And it’s arguable center field belongs to Endy Chavez as long as he shows he can get on base this spring, just as first base belongs to Nick Johnson as long as he stays healthy and hits.

The battles taking place at the Carl Barger Baseball Complex and continuing when exhibition games start tomorrow at Space Coast Stadium are primarily for backup jobs — a sore spot for the budget-strapped Expos in the past that appears to have been addressed going into the 2005 season.

“There is one starting position open: center field,” Robinson said. “The other positions that are open are role players, bench players.”

The number of bench jobs available for the start of the season depends on the number of pitchers Robinson takes north.

“We will bring at least 11, possibly 12,” he said. “It all comes down to needs. If we feel we need an extra position player, we won’t take more than 11 pitchers. If we feel we need more … pitching, we would bring 12.”

If the Nationals bring 11 pitchers — which, given several off-days during the first month of the season, is probably the route they will take — and two catchers, Schneider and backup Gary Bennett, that would leave five roster spots open, probably two outfielders and three infielders.

Assuming Chavez starts in center, Wilkerson in left and Guillen in right, Terrmel Sledge would be the fourth outfielder. The final outfield spot could come down to Jeffrey Hammonds, Alex Escobar, J.J. Davis and Rule V pickup Tyrell Godwin, with Hammonds emerging as the likely winner if he stays healthy.

In the infield, Wil Cordero will be the backup first baseman and pinch hitter. Robinson loved Cordero in Montreal in 2003, when he hit 16 home runs, drove in 71 runs, batted .278 and was one of the clubhouse leaders. Last season with the Marlins, Cordero struggled with knee problems and had surgery on both knees, batting just .197 with one home run and six RBI in 27 games. But the Nationals didn’t sign Cordero to a $600,000 contract not to use him this year.

The second infield job probably will go to Jamey Carroll, who played well last year filling in for the injured Vidro, hitting .277 while getting starts at second, short and third. He also was an effective pinch hitter (.320).

That leaves one more infield spot. The most curious possibility might be third baseman George Arias, who signed a minor league contract after becoming a slugging star in Japan. In four major league seasons from 1996 to 1999, Arias hit .237 with 14 home runs and 55 RBI. He then moved to Japan, where he became a premier power hitter, slugging 159 home runs and driving in 431 runs in five seasons, including 38 homers and 107 RBI in 2003. If he shows he can put up numbers anywhere close to that and can handle the field work, he likely will win the last backup job. His competition are Rule V pickup Tony Blanco and 36-year-old veteran Carlos Baerga, who is a long shot.

Of course, the wild card in all this is Bowden, who likely won’t be able to make it through spring training without pulling off some sort of trade. He wasn’t pleased with suggestions there was little competition for jobs this spring.

“There are a lot of evaluations going on right now,” he said. “We don’t know what is going to happen between now and the start of the season.

“We have to solve some issues. The center fielder is a great defensive player who hasn’t gotten on base yet. He has to prove to us that he can get on base because we can’t keep watching the same numbers year after year. They are not numbers that work in order to win. The first baseman has been hurt every year of his career. He hasn’t shown he can stay healthy and perform. So there are two spots that have to show us they can do it.

“When you are 25 or 26, that is when you are supposed to put it together and make the adjustments. It’s time for a lot of these young guys to step up and perform and not be a prospect anymore and turn potential into performance. If you don’t, somebody else is going to get the opportunity.”

Could that opportunity for somebody emerge in a trade?

“Yes, there is the chance of player movement,” said Bowden, who probably goes to bed every night chanting the name, “Wily Mo Pena.”

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