That's what Washington believes it has now that the franchise has relocated from Montreal and will be able to play all of its home games in one city in front of passionate baseball fans.">
That's what Washington believes it has now that the franchise has relocated from Montreal and will be able to play all of its home games in one city in front of passionate baseball fans.">

Inside Pitch: Nats Happy to be on "Level" Field

The most popular phrase coming from Nationals players, coaches and executives this spring is "even playing field." <br><br> That's what Washington believes it has now that the franchise has relocated from Montreal and will be able to play all of its home games in one city in front of passionate baseball fans.

"We have an even playing field now," manager Frank Robinson said. "We have a permanent home. We have a fan base that will be supporting us and a schedule that will be the same as everyone else's."

That wasn't the case the last two seasons, when the MLB-owned Expos were forced to play 22 "home" games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The less-than-ideal conditions clearly took their toll on the club. The Expos went 7-14 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium last year and played nearly .500 ball the second half of the season (when all their home games were at Olympic Stadium).

"No team in major league baseball has ever had to go through that," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "It was very tough on us, physically and mentally. To say we were going to compete throughout the whole season was very tough."

Players were careful never to use their nomad status as an excuse for their play on the field. But privately they acknowledged the toll it took on them. Most believe they would have finished far better than 67-95 had they simply been able to call one city home.

"Last year was even worse (than 2003)," pitcher Zach Day said, "because we actually knew what we were going to have to go through. The year before, we didn't know. So going into last year, we were already down before we even started."

Few expect the Nationals to contend in the loaded NL East this season. But those who have followed this team closely in recent years say there's no reason it can't reproduce its magic from 2002 and 2003, when the vagabond Expos finished 83-79 and remained in the NL wild-card race until September.

"You can write whatever you want," right-hander Livan Hernandez said. "Trust me, this team isn't going to finish in last place this year."

Where, When: Space Coast Stadium, Viera, Fla. First exhibition game is March 2 against the New York Mets.

Who's in charge Manager Frank Robinson (fourth season managing Expos/Nationals (233-253 record), 15th season overall (913-1,004 record), pitching coach Randy St. Claire, hitting coach Tom McCraw, bench coach Eddie Rodriguez, first-base coach Don Buford, third-base coach Dave Huppert, bullpen coach Bob Natal, roving coach Jack Voigt.

Top Candidate to Surprise: RHP Zach Day doesn't draw a lot of attention, but the 26-year-old sinkerballer is starting to come into his own and could prove to be one of the most reliable members of the starting rotation. In 19 starts last year, Day posted an impressive 3.93 ERA yet finished 5-10 because he was given the worst run support in the majors (2.47 runs per nine innings).

Top Candidate to Disappoint: 1B Nick Johnson has always been highly touted, dating to his days with the Yankees. But in four major league seasons, Johnson has posted a career .255 batting average and has never stayed healthy enough to get more than 378 at-bats in a season. Though he'll enter camp as the Nationals' starting first baseman, Johnson could quickly find himself on the bench with a poor performance, with LF Brad Wilkerson moving in to play first base and Terrmell Sledge starting in left.

News, Notes
  • Manager Frank Robinson said RHP Livan Hernandez, barring injury, will be the Nationals' Opening Day starter April 4 in Philadelphia. It's the fifth time Hernandez, 30, has had Opening Day honors, and he seems to recognize the significance of throwing the first pitch by a Washington baseball player in 34 years. "I threw the last game (at Candlestick Park in San Francisco) and now I'm going to throw the first pitch for the Washington Nationals," he said. "It's something that's special for me. I think a lot of people have been waiting for that moment."
  • Even though he was surprisingly effective in his first full season in the majors, RHP Chad Cordero will not be Washington's full-time closer entering the season. Manager Frank Robinson loves what Cordero did in the role last fall (14 saves, 2.94 ERA) but doesn't want to put too much pressure on the 22-year-old yet. For now, Robinson plans to use a bullpen-by-committee, with RHP Luis Ayala and perhaps others sharing closing duties with Cordero.
  • As of Friday (Feb. 18), the Nationals had only seven players on the 40-man roster unsigned: RHPs Luis Ayala, Francis Beltran, Chad Cordero, Zach Day and Jon Rauch, OF Endy Chavez and IF Henry Mateo.
  • The Nationals signed a radio rights deal with Bonneville International Corporation, a move that makes a local FM station the club's flagship. The Atlanta Braves are the only other major league team to use an FM station as its flagship.
By the Numbers: 59 -- Players in Nationals' camp this spring.

Quote to note: "By the time I'm taking my last breath, I'm probably going to be down to 99th. People are going to say, 'Frank who?' " -- Manager Frank Robinson, currently fifth on the all-time home runs list, on the inflated power numbers in today's game.

ROSTER REPORT

The Nationals' offseason makeover from the Montreal Expos might not have been that dramatic, but interim general manager Jim Bowden did make some calculated moves in an attempt to make this club competitive. Working under a tight, $50 million budget, Bowden still managed to sign 3B Vinny Castilla, SS Cristian Guzman, RHP Esteban Loaiza and RHP Antonio Osuna and trade for OF Jose Guillen. The end product will be a team devoid of many big names but one that should be markedly improved from last year's 67-95 squad. PROJECTED ROTATION:
  • RHP Livan Hernandez is the unquestioned ace of the staff, if for no reason other than his remarkable durability. The veteran has pitched at least 199 2/3 innings in each of the last seven seasons and in 2004 led the majors in innings pitched (255) and complete games (nine).
  • RHP Esteban Loaiza is hoping to resurrect his career after a disastrous 2004 season, split between the White Sox and Yankees. The Nationals took a chance on him, though, hoping he can regain his form from 2003, when he won 21 games and was AL Cy Young runner-up.
  • RHP Tony Armas Jr. needs to prove his throwing shoulder is fully healed nearly two years after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum. If healthy, the 27-year-old has the stuff to be a 15- to 18-game winner.
  • RHP Tomo Ohka has a solid career ERA of 3.92 but was the victim of a freak injury in 2004. A line drive broke his right arm, and he missed the season's final 85 games.
  • RHP Zach Day is the least-heralded member of the pitching staff but has proved to be a solid starter in three major league seasons. The sinkerball specialist posted a 3.93 ERA last year but went just 5-10 because of the majors' worst run support.
The Nationals' rotation isn't devoid of talent, but it has been beset by injuries. Only RHP Livan Hernandez threw more than 140 innings in 2004, with RHPs Tony Armas Jr., Tomo Ohka and Zach Day all spending extended periods on the DL. Washington signed free agent workhorse RHP Esteban Loaiza to help eat innings, but the team's success this season will depend in large part on the health and performances of the rest of the rotation.

PROJECTED BULLPEN: --RHP Chad Cordero was impressive in his first extended stint as a major league closer, posting 14 saves and a 2.94 ERA. The Nationals want to be careful with the 22-year-old, though, and will likely open the season with him sharing closer duties with RHP Luis Ayala.
  • RHP Luis Ayala had a solid sophomore season in the big leagues, posting a 2.69 ERA and two saves in 81 appearances. The 27-year-old did lose 12 games, though, and is likely to be asked to share closing duties with young RHP Chad Cordero to open the season.
  • RHP Antonio Osuna closed out 2004 strong, helping keep the San Diego Padres in the pennant race through September. The Nationals signed Osuna to a one-year, $800,000 contract and will ask him to be one of their primary setup men.
  • LHP Joey Eischen, when healthy, is one of the game's better left-handed relievers. Eischen, though, made just 21 appearances in 2004 while battling elbow trouble and needs to show he's healthy this spring.
  • RHP T. J. Tucker is a reliable middle reliever and last year posted a career-best 3.72 ERA in 54 appearances. Tucker needs to show he can pitch on back-to-back days, though his ERA in those situations last season was a gaudy 9.72.
  • LHP Joe Horgan was acquired from St. Louis last May in an obscure minor league trade but wound up going 4-1 with a 3.15 ERA and two saves for the Expos. The Nationals could really use those same numbers this year from the second lefty out of their bullpen.
  • RHP John Patterson is a starter by trade but is likely headed for the bullpen in 2005 after the Nationals filled out their rotation with veteran RHP Esteban Loaiza. Patterson, who posted a 5.03 ERA in 19 starts last year, would be in line to return to the rotation if someone gets hurt.
There aren't a lot of recognizable names here, but this unit improved considerably as the 2004 season wore on. RHPs Luis Ayala, Antonio Osuna and T.J. Tucker and LHP Joey Eischen are all solid setup men. The big question is whether 22-year-old RHP Chad Cordero is ready to be a big-league closer. The club will do its best to try to ease Cordero into the role by having him share the job with Ayala early on. Other candidates to make the bullpen out of the spring include RHPs Jon Rauch, Claudio Vargas, Francis Beltran and Gary Majewski.

PROJECTED LINEUP:
  • CF Endy Chavez needs to prove he can be a reliable leadoff hitter. If he can't improve his .318 on-base percentage, manager Frank Robinson might have no choice but to use power-hitting OF/1B Brad Wilkerson atop the order.
  • SS Cristian Guzman was acquired from the Twins to provide solid defense up the middle. He also needs to work on his hitting, though, or else risk being dropped to eighth in the lineup.
  • 2B Jose Vidro is the franchise's senior member, team leader and best all-around player. Vidro, though, needs to show he's fully recovered from the knee injury that pestered him for nearly two years.
  • RF Jose Guillen is a legitimate 30-homer, 100-RBI threat and has a great arm in right field. If he's learned to control his anger (he's been in therapy), he could be a steal for Washington at $3.5 million this year.
  • LF Brad Wilkerson is the club's most versatile player, able to play LF, CF and 1B while possessing a rare combination of power (32 homers) and speed (13 stolen bases). The club would prefer to bat him in the middle of the lineup so he can drive in runs, but he might be forced into the leadoff spot if someone else doesn't perform.
  • 3B Vinny Castilla led the NL in RBI last season with 131, but that came in the thin air of Colorado's Coors Field. Based on his .321/.218 home/road split in 2004, Castilla should expect his numbers to diminish in Washington.
  • 1B Nick Johnson is running out of time to show he has developed into the major league hitter everyone thinks he will be. After battling injuries last year, Johnson must perform well this spring or risk losing his job.
  • C Brian Schneider is one of the NL's best defensive catchers and is improving at the plate. He posted career highs last year in homers (12), RBI (49) and batting average (.257).
The Nationals' lineup could be a work-in-progress all season. It all starts at the top, where manager Frank Robinson needs to decide who his leadoff hitter is. The club would prefer CF Endy Chavez to seize the role but might be forced to use OF/1B Brad Wilkerson there instead. Robinson also must find a way to squeeze four players into three positions (LF, CF, 1B). For now, Wilkerson is penciled in for left, Chavez for center and Nick Johnson at first. But Robinson loves second-year OF Terrmel Sledge, and he could ultimately wind up in left field with Wilkerson at first and Johnson on the bench.

PROJECTED RESERVES:
  • C Gary Bennett is your typical backup catcher. He doesn't hit much, but he calls a good game and is good for one or two starts a week to give starter Brian Schneider a break.
  • INF Jamey Carroll is a reliable middle infielder who was called into action frequently last season to fill in at 2B when Jose Vidro went down and SS when Orlando Cabrera was traded.
  • 1B/OF Wil Cordero was a key member of the Expos' 2002 and 2003 teams and provided veteran leadership. It remains to be seen how much he has left in the tank.
  • OF Terrmel Sledge is coming off an impressive rookie season (15 homers, 62 RBI) and could push his way into the starting lineup with a solid spring.
  • OF Tyrell Godwin was acquired from the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 draft and could make the club as a fifth outfielder and pinch-running specialist. The speedy Godwin stole 42 bases at Double-A New Hampshire last season.
The Nationals' lack of depth is evident by their bench, which doesn't inspire much fear in opponents. OF Terrmel Sledge is the best of the bunch and could be on the verge of winning an everyday job. There's always a chance for a spring surprise, too, with non-roster invitees like OF Jeffrey Hammonds, 3B George Arias and Rule 5 pickup INF Tony Blanco all candidates to sneak onto the roster.

TOP ROOKIES: LHP Mike Hinckley is the organization's top pitching prospect, having gone a combined 11-4 with a 2.77 ERA between Double-A Harrisburg and Class A Brevard County in 2004. Though he has no Triple-A experience, the Nationals will give him a chance to win a spot in their rotation this spring. 1B Larry Broadway is the club's best power-hitting prospect (.270, 22 homers, 72 RBI at Double-A Harrisburg last year). He's likely another year or two from cracking the big-league roster but could surprise this spring and make his case for a promotion.

SPRING FOCUS: Washington needs to emerge from the spring having chosen a leadoff hitter (CF Endy Chavez, LF Brad Wilkerson or SS Cristian Guzman) and a cleanup hitter (RF Jose Guillen, 3B Vinny Castilla, 2B Jose Vidro or Wilkerson). The club also needs to find out if a large number of players returning from injury (Vidro, 1B Nick Johnson, RHPs Tony Armas Jr., Tomo Ohka, Zach Day) are fully healed.

MEDICAL WATCH: Several players are coming back from injury-filled 2004 seasons. 2B Jose Vidro hopes that knee surgery will end two seasons of pain. 1B Nick Johnson is coming back from a broken cheekbone. RHPs Tony Armas Jr., Tomo Ohka and Zach Day are all being counted on to make it through the season in one piece, even though none of them did a year ago.

Capitol Dugout Top Stories

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