The Nationals unveiled slugger Adam Dunn in style last week, with a team spokesman calling the announcement of Dunn's signing a "historic day" and principal owner Mark Lerner suggesting Dunn could be the slugger the town has been waiting for since his childhood hero, Frank Howard.
But no one was biting on the question of where Dunn will play. The only thing that's certain at this point is that Dunn will get time at both first base and left field during spring training, and that he's likely to unseat an established veteran no matter where he starts.
The only hint manager Manny Acta gave was that the team would enjoy having Dunn, a left-hander with a .381 lifetime on-base percentage, in the same lineup as first baseman Nick Johnson (whose OBP is routinely around .400).
Johnson arrived at the team's spring training complex in Viera, Florida, a week before the mandatory reporting date to work with new hitting coach Rick Eckstein and continue rehabbing the torn tendon sheath in his right wrist that ended his season last May.
As heated as a Dunn/Johnson competition could be at first, the battle could be even stiffer if Dunn lands in the outfield. The Nationals already have a surplus of players fighting for the three spots, including Dunn's close friend Austin Kearns, who is in danger of being unseated in right field after an injury-filled and ineffective 2008 season.
Dunn said he would be willing to play either position, and as secretive as Acta has been about his roster in past springs, it's likely Dunn will rotate between the two positions throughout the next seven weeks while the manager trots out each possible scenario.
"Don't think that it hasn't come to our thoughts about what a great lineup it could be, having two guys that are close to .400 on-base percentage, left-handed bats with pop in the lineup," Acta said. "It's still open. At the end of camp, we're just going to do what's best for the Nationals to win."
Remember this name...
Anderson Hernandez has never managed to hit consistently in the major leagues. But the 26-year-old posted a .333 average in 28 games after his acquisition from the Mets last fall, and he was voted the second most-valuable player of the Dominican winter league. With an opportunity to win Washington's starting second base job, Hernandez could be primed for a career rejuvenation.
Jordan Zimmermann, a 2007 draft pick out of tiny Wisconsin-Stevens Point, catapulted his way through the Nationals' farm system and is now rated their top pitching prospect. The 23-year-old will have a shot at making the big-league rotation this spring, though the club could decide he needs a brief stop at Class AAA first. RHP Terrell Young, a hard-throwing reliever, was the first selection in the Rule 5 draft and stands a good shot at making the roster.
Most likely to not succeed...
Shawn Hill was touted as perhaps the Nationals' future ace when he arrived at spring training in 2008. But persistent forearm pain derailed his season and left him with an unsure future. Hill says he's healthy again, but he's never managed to make it through a full year intact, and there's little reason to believe he can reverse course now.
Manny Acta is well-respected throughout the Nationals organization and
throughout baseball. But after a dismal 2008 season that saw Washington lose 102
games, Acta could find himself on the hot seat. The club has yet to pick up his
option for 2010, leaving him a lame duck. GM Jim Bowden also fired all of Acta's
staff (except for pitching coach Randy St. Claire) at the end of the season,
putting more pressure on the manager to deliver this year.
Keep the tape handy...
Nick Johnson said his right wrist is mostly recovered from surgery that ended his season after 38 games last season, but he will have to tape the wrist most of the season. "It gets sore here and there, but I never lose strength," Johnson said. "It's something I'll have to deal with all year. There are no limitations of letting it go. I'll just tape it up."
Getting full extension...
Ryan Zimmerman, who was one of the players working the hardest to convince Adam Dunn to sign with the Nationals, said the slugger's presence will help set an example for some of the Nationals' young players. Zimmerman, who is often viewed as the face of the franchise at 24, has hinted Washington needed to acquire veterans who could lead in the clubhouse. "We were almost too individual (last season). There were so many of those so-called leaders that weren't there," Zimmerman said. "Nobody said anything. We have to learn we can't make same mistakes twice. We'll be able to communicate better as a team (because of Dunn)."
The Nationals face an arbitration hearing with Zimmerman later this week, but are working on a long-term deal for their franchise player. For his part, Zimmerman has said that he would appreciate a long-term deal, though the Nationals have been slow to come through with deals for their young players.
After a slow offseason, the Nationals made a big splash just before spring training, signing 1B/OF Adam Dunn. Prior to that move, GM Jim Bowden had managed to acquire LHP Scott Olsen and OF Josh Willingham in a trade with the Marlins, and he had signed erratic RHP Daniel Cabrera.
LHP Scott Olsen (trade with Marlins), OF Josh Willingham (trade with Marlins), RHP Terrell Young (Rule 5 selection from Reds), RHP Daniel Cabrera (free agent from Orioles), OF Corey Patterson (minor league free agent from Reds), RHP Josh Towers (minor league free agent from Rockies), LHP Wil Ledezma (minor league free agent from Diamondbacks), INF Alex Cintron (minor league free agent from Orioles), C Javier Valentin (minor league free agent from Reds), 1B/OF Adam Dunn (free agent from Diamondbacks).
LHP Charlie Manning (claimed off waivers by Cardinals), 2B Emilio Bonifacio (traded to Marlins), INF Aaron Boone (free agent, signed with Astros), RHP Tim Redding (non-tendered, signed with Mets), RHP Chad Cordero (free agent, unsigned).
Spring game plan:
There is plenty for the Nationals to sort out this spring. They must put together a rotation that has only two guaranteed members as camp opens (John Lannan and Scott Olsen). They must determine if Nick Johnson is finally healthy or if they need to look elsewhere for a first baseman. They must pick a starting second baseman from a pool that includes Anderson Hernandez, Ronnie Belliard and Willie Harris. And they must sort out a crowded outfield that boasts Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Josh Willingham and Austin Kearns.
1. LHP John Lannan
2. LHP Scott Olsen
3. RHP Daniel Cabrera
4. LHP Odalis Perez
5. RHP Collin Balester or RHP Jordan Zimmermann
Only the top two spots are secure, with young lefties Lannan and Olsen serving as the group's foundation. Cabrera was signed as a free agent, and pitching coach Randy St. Claire hopes to harness the right-hander's immense potential after it went awry in Baltimore. Perez was re-signed to a minor league contract but is likely to make the rotation unless he struggles through the spring.
The final spot is completely up for grabs. Balester was erratic in his first big-league campaign in 2008. Zimmermann is the organization's top pitching prospect and could make the Opening Day roster if he dazzles this spring, although he probably needs more seasoning. RHP Shawn Hill, trying to return from a forearm injury, is another candidate, as is RHP Jason Bergmann.
What used to be the Nationals' backbone is now a potential weakness. Injuries and trades forced Washington to completely revamp its relief corps. What remains is a highly inexperienced group that does have some potential to thrive.
Hanrahan is a hard-throwing former starter who didn't seem fazed by the closer's role during his late-season tryout. Rivera has been an unsung, reliable workhorse the last two years. Shell and Mock performed well as rookies, as did Hinckley, who did not allow an earned run in September. Young, the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, is a flame-thrower who could surprise. Glover and Ledezma are world-weary veterans who were signed to minor league contracts with a shot at making the club.
The majors' least-productive lineup gets a boost with the signing of Dunn, who adds a legitimate home run threat to the lineup but also complicates the competition at first base and the outfield. Manager Manny Acta hinted he wanted both Dunn and Johnson in the lineup at the same time, and the pair of patient left-handed hitters could fit nicely around Dukes.
Austin Kearns and Josh Willingham likely will have to force their way into the lineup if Dunn winds up in the outfield. The Nationals don't want to take playing time away from Milledge or Dukes, which means Kearns and Willingham might come off the bench.
C Wil Nieves
INF Ronnie Belliard
OF/INF Willie Harris
OF Austin Kearns
OF Josh Willingham
The Nationals' bench gets more crowded with the signing of Adam Dunn, who likely pushes Willingham to the bench and makes it difficult for INF Alex Cintron to earn a spot. A trade could send Kearns out of town and open a spot for another middle infielder, which the Nationals might need if Cristian Guzman's injury troubles resurface.
- Nick Johnson (right wrist surgery in June 2008) has rehabbed all winter, and he had just a bit of soreness at the start of spring training.
- Wily Mo Pena (left rotator cuff surgery in July 2008) worked out during the offseason. Although he didn't play winter ball, he is expected to be ready for the start of spring training.
- Shawn Hill (arthroscopic elbow surgery in August 2008) began throwing off a mound in early February and expected to be ready for the start of spring training.
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