Health tops priority list in Year 2

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Heading into the offseason, Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden had reachable goals: adding a power bat, strengthening his bench and deepening his starting rotation.

There were other challenges, though, beyond the reach of Bowden and manager Frank Robinson - certain things they hoped would be decided by spring training.

First was clearing up the franchise's ownership issue, which remains murky. The Nationals enter their second spring training still run by Major League Baseball.

Then there's the sticky stadium situation, which took a step toward resolution last week when the D.C. Council approved a funding plan for a new ballpark along the Anacostia River. A departure from the original deal, the new proposal remains in limbo.

Without stadium funding in place, picking an owner was temporarily shelved this winter, making Bowden's on-field pursuits more difficult. At least one coveted free agent, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher A.J. Burnett, said he decided, in part, against signing with the Nationals because of the ownership instability.

Yet for the Nationals to improve on their 81-81 record, one unpredictable component stands above all in Bowden's mind. And it has nothing to do with money or politics.

"When you look at our team, you have to point to health," Bowden said. "We have to stay healthy for a year. Our big guys must stay healthy."

All teams are hampered by injuries through the course of a long season, but the Nationals were a special case in 2005. Nearly every one of their key players - and plenty of their fringe types, too - were sidelined at some point. Even ace Livan Hernandez, baseball's most durable workhorse, threatened to cut his year short to have surgery.

Bowden said if he can get full seasons from second baseman Jose Vidro, first baseman Nick Johnson, right fielder Jose Guillen and starting pitcher John Patterson, among others, his team can be competitive in a tough division that may have taken a step backward.

The Florida Marlins raffled off their best players this offseason. The Philadelphia Phillies lost All-Star closer Billy Wagner and traded away first baseman Jim Thome, outfielder Jason Michaels and starter Vicente Padilla. And the Atlanta Braves lost leadoff man Rafael Furcal and will have to hope their young nucleus continues to progress.

Only the free-spending New York Mets significantly improved in the National League East. And that gives the Nationals some hope as camp begins in Viera, Fla., assuming their own myriad questions are answered positively this spring.

The most important of which is whether new slugger Alfonso Soriano will agree to make the switch from second base to the outfield. Soriano, whom the Nationals acquired from the Texas Rangers in December for outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and a prospect, has said he won't leave the infield.

His reluctance is a significant problem for Washington because the oft-injured Vidro, the club's incumbent second baseman and team leader, plays no other position. And right fielder Guillen is still battling shoulder pain - meaning the Nats could have two outfield holes in April.

"Right now, we are at the line of scrimmage, audibling," Bowden said. "We do not have a set plan unless Soriano comes to spring training and says he wants to play left field. If he doesn't, we'll have to deal with it and make the best decision at that time."

Complicating matters is that Soriano likely will play second base for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, limiting his time in the Nationals' camp. The Soriano position dilemma could be cleared up if Vidro, whose knee and ankle problems have limited him to 197 games over the past two seasons, isn't healthy for Opening Day.

"Vidro's mission is to play 160 games for us," said Bowden, who has received favorable medical reports on the veteran infielder this winter. "That's what his goal is."

Soriano's presence and Vidro's progress will be among Washington's main storylines this spring - as will the maturation of 21-year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the No. 4 pick overall in last year's amateur draft out of the University of Virginia.

When the Nationals traded third baseman Vinny Castilla to the San Diego Padres in November for right-hander Brian Lawrence, it wasn't simply to add a potential rotation replacement for Esteban Loaiza, who left for the Oakland Athletics.

Castilla's departure created a starting job for the smooth-fielding Zimmerman, who is ahead of Brendan Harris, 25, on the depth chart.

"If Zimmerman's not ready, Harris will get a chance. We are not going to put all our eggs in one basket," Bowden said. "We'll go through the process and, if it doesn't work, [Zimmerman] has three years of [minor league] options and we'll go onto plan B, C or D."

Bowden spent much of the winter stockpiling his options.

Newly acquired potential reserves for 2006 include Marlon Anderson, Robert Fick, Royce Clayton, Matt LeCroy, Daryle Ward, Michael Tucker and former Oriole Bernie Castro. Also, former Oriole Sammy Sosa has been offered a non-guaranteed spot on the 40-man roster.

It should make for some interesting cuts come the end of spring.

"We struggled last year off the bench. We had injuries, and we barely had enough guys to go in there," Bowden said. "We've gotten to the point where we are deeper. We have a much better shot in scoring some runs with our bench guys."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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