Monday, May 1, 2006

Nationals Insider

He was, for a brief time last season, the heart and soul of the Washington Nationals. Frank Robinson even went so far as to declare he had become the leader of this team following a gutsy performance in a key early season win at San Francisco.

One year later, it’s hard to describe Jose Guillen the same way. After an offseason and spring full of injuries and a slow start to the regular season, the Nationals right fielder has become something of an afterthought on this team.

Even after hitting a home run Saturday afternoon in St. Louis, Guillen’s offensive numbers pale in comparison with his fellow middle-of-the-order hitters. He is now hitting .237 (worse than Royce Clayton), with two home runs (the same as Daryle Ward) and seven RBI (fewer than Brian Schneider).

Worse, he’s committed a surprising number of defensive miscues, including a dropped fly ball Saturday that even he called “a rookie mistake.”

So what happened to the multi-talented outfielder with the nearly unrivaled competitive drive?

“I think Jose has a lot of things on his mind and he’s not really focused,” Robinson said.

There’s truth to that statement. Since Opening Day, Guillen has seemed preoccupied with several issues, few of them having anything to do with his performance on the field.

He’s dealing with injuries to his shoulder, wrist and his arm. He became embroiled in a war of words with Pedro Martinez after getting beaned by the Mets ace for the fifth time in his career and threatening to charge the mound with bat in hand.

He remains obsessed with RFK Stadium’s spacious outfield, standing with his hands on his hips in disbelief every time he flies out to the warning track. And he’s upset the Nationals have not offered him a long-term contract extension to his liking.

Many believe the contract issue is the root of his struggles, despite his insistence that it’s not.

“Not at all,” said Guillen, whose is a free agent after the season. “It’s a situation where I got a pretty good offer. I met with [team president] Tony [Tavares] and the conversation was good. It’s not in my mind anymore.”

Guillen would be wise to let the whole matter go. The truth is he’s not going to get his contract. At least not soon and perhaps not at all from the Nationals.

Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, Guillen is not going to receive the kind of deal he thinks he deserves (as much as five years and $50 million). Not until he proves he can consistently put up big offensive numbers every season without causing any off-field distractions.

On both fronts, many in the Nationals organization still don’t believe in Guillen. Even his most ardent supporters are tiring of his act, upset that he won’t let go of his RFK obsession.

With the club continuing to plummet in the standings and new ownership likely to make changes, the current administration could find itself looking to unload veteran players this summer in exchange for young talent.

The common belief all along has been that the Nationals will be looking to trade a high-priced, soon-to-be free agent outfielder come July.

What’s becoming clearer, though, is that the outfielder on the trading block might not be named Soriano but rather Guillen.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page.

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