NL East Preview: Washington Nationals

Three important players could be lost for the season and another isn't happy being moved to the outfield. Such was the 2006 spring training for the Washington Nationals. And oh yeah, they still don't know who's going to own the team.

A spring training filled with countless questions coming in was thrown into all kinds of disarray after a spate of injuries and other maladies. In the end, the Nationals were left hoping to pull it together in time for Opening Day.

Things started off on a sour note when right-hander Brian Lawrence, projected as Washington's number three starter, tore his labrum and rotator cuff in his first bullpen session. He'll almost certainly miss the entire season, as will top setup man Luis Ayala, who sprained his elbow while pitching in the World Baseball Classic. Shortstop Cristian Guzman, hoping to bounce back after a horrible 2005, faces possible season-ending surgery himself after developing a right shoulder tear.

And all of that paled in comparison with the biggest story of the spring: Alfonso Soriano's initial refusal to move from second base to left field. Soriano did finally relent, though, perhaps the first sign that the Nationals' disastrous spring was beginning to take a turn for the better.

Still, there were questions about whether this club would be ready by Opening Day.

"Let's hope that we are," manager Frank Robinson said. "Let's hope there's some type of miracle, somebody feels sorry for us, puts a little blessing over the ballclub. Then all of the sudden we wake up like Cinderella or somebody and this is all a bad dream and we start doing the things we feel like we're capable of doing. That's playing good, fundamental baseball."

For that to happen, the Nationals must get quality starting pitching from a rotation full of question marks. Ace Livan Hernandez and number two starter John Patterson should be up to their usual tricks, but there's plenty of uncertainty after that. Veterans Pedro Astacio and Ramon Ortiz had up-and-down springs, while number five starter Tony Armas Jr. is trying to come back from two years of shoulder injuries.

Offensively, Washington appears to have more firepower than a year ago, but there are still questions. For starters, the Nationals needed to settle on a leadoff hitter as camp wound down - it looks as though Brandon Watson has won the center field job and will leadoff the Nationals lineup. The rest of the lineup features quality hitters who need to show they can stay healthy like Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen and Nick Johnson.

Watch out for… 1B Nick Johnson was the Nationals' best all-around player in 2005 before suffering a deep bone bruise in his right heel that derailed his season. Signed this spring to a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension, Johnson seems poised to become a consistently productive hitter at last.

Going down? 2B Jose Vidro worked hard over the winter to get himself back in shape after dealing with knee injuries for two seasons. But even if healthy, it's doubtful he'll ever fully regain his previous All-Star form.

A team player?

The Alfonso Soriano situation, which threatened to become an unqualified distraction right into the regular season, was ultimately resolved when Soriano agreed to move from second base to left field at long last.

Two days after refusing to take the field despite his presence in the starting lineup, Soriano met with Frank Robinson and informed the Nationals manager he would play left field for the season.

"I'm going to play the best I can in left field," Soriano said. "Today and in the future. ... I don't have no more choice."

Soriano came to that realization after enduring through a 48-hour onslaught of negative press following his initial refusal to play. Not wanting to be regarded as a bad seed, and not wanting to risk being placed on the disqualified list (and forfeiting a $10 million salary), he ultimately decided to acquiesce to the club's demands.

"He's out there, he's doing what the manager is directing," general manager Jim Bowden said. "He's making a personal sacrifice for the organization."

The Numbers Game: 105 - Errors Alfonso Soriano committed at second base from 2001 to 2005, nearly twice as much as any other second baseman in baseball.

He said what? "I wouldn't say he's going to be another Willie Mays." - Nationals spring instructor Jose Cardenal, who has been charged with teaching Alfonso Soriano how to play the outfield in less than two weeks.

ROSTER PROJECTIONS

It was an eventful and not always positive spring for the Nationals. Several key players – Brian Lawrence, Luis Ayala and Cristian Guzman – were lost for the season because of injuries and several others were set back by their time away from camp in the World Baseball Classic and then Alfonso Soriano created a major distraction with his brief refusal to play left field.

As camp wound down, though, things seemed to be getting back on track. Soriano agreed to the position switch, the back end of the rotation started to take shape and the lineup fell into place.

ROTATION:
1. RHP Livan Hernandez
2. RHP John Patterson
3. RHP Pedro Astacio
4. RHP Ramon Ortiz
5. RHP Tony Armas Jr.

Hernandez and Patterson are entrenched as the top two starters and should both build off their strong performances from a year ago. The rest of the rotation is filled with question marks, but Astacio, Ortiz and Armas all have the potential to do good things.

If anyone were to falter, long reliever and swing man RHP Jon Rauch is ready to step into the rotation, while LHP Billy Traber and RHP Kyle Denney await at Triple-A New Orleans for a call-up.

BULLPEN:
RHP Chad Cordero (closer)
RHP Gary Majewski
LHP Joey Eischen
LHP Mike Stanton
RHP Felix Rodriguez
RHP Jon Rauch

The Nationals' strongest unit from 2005 took a big hit when RHP Luis Ayala blew out his elbow in the World Baseball Classic and was lost for the season. Still, this is one of the better bullpens in the National League, anchored by closer Cordero.

Majewski and Rodriguez will look to fill Ayala's set-up role, and several impressive youngsters (including RHP Jason Bergmann, RHP Steve Watkins and RHP Saul Rivera) are waiting in the wings at Triple-A New Orleans if needed.

LINEUP:
1. CF Brandon Watson
2. 2B Jose Vidro
3. RF Jose Guillen
4. 1B Nick Johnson
5. LF Alfonso Soriano
6. 3B Ryan Zimmerman
7. C Brian Schneider
8. SS Royce Clayton

Nothing was set in stone with a week to go in spring training, but manager Frank Robinson was probably leaning toward some variation of this lineup. Rookie OF Brandon Watson, the only true leadoff hitter in camp was a surprise addition to the roster, at the expense of outfielder Ryan Church, who was optioned out to AAA New Orleans. Robinson has also experimented with having Soriano hitting either leadoff or second in the order.

The middle of the pack is subject to tweaks, too, but will include the likes of Vidro, Guillen, Johnson, Soriano and Zimmerman in some order.

RESERVES:
C Wiki Gonzalez
1B-C Matt LeCroy
INF Damian Jackson
INF Marlon Anderson
OF Marlon Byrd
1B Daryle Ward

Only two spots remained up for grabs entering the final week of camp. Gonzalez beat out Castillo for the backup catcher's job, while Tucker found himself released in favor of veteran Daryle Ward.

The four who are assured of roster spots bring some quality credentials to the Nationals' bench. LeCroy and Anderson will be the top pinch-hitters from the right and left sides of the plate, respectively. Jackson will back up both middle-infield spots, while Byrd will see some time in center field and fill in occasionally in the corner spots.

Watch this rookie… 3B Ryan Zimmerman is the only rookie guaranteed to make the Opening Day roster, and if this spring was any indication, the 21-year-old has a chance to make a real name for himself immediately. OF Brandon Watson had a good spring and was receptive to the advice of Washington's coaching staff, which helped him to win the center field job.

The Trainer's Room: OF Jose Guillen (left wrist, left shoulder) was back in the lineup for the final two weeks of the spring and was poised to make the Opening Day lineup. 2B Jose Vidro (sore right knee) appears to be nearly back to full strength. 1B-C Robert Fick (bone spurs in right elbow) will open the season on the disabled list but should return by the end of April. SS Cristian Guzman (slight tear in right shoulder) was hoping to avoid season-ending surgery. RHP Luis Ayala (sprained right elbow ligament) is out for the season after getting hurt in the World Baseball Classic. RHP Ryan Drese (torn right labrum) will open on the DL but could return to the rotation shortly after the season begins. RHP Brian Lawrence (torn right labrum and rotator cuff) is almost certainly out for the year.


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