Can Alfonso Soriano play left field - and be happy?

Despite how he was perceived the past month, Soriano is not normally a malcontent. Yes, it was selfish of him not to want to play left field, especially considering he's below average defensively at second. But he is in a contract year, and his highest worth is as a heavy-hitting middle infielder. There is a real danger here that learning a new position will affect his offense. If it does, though, he'll likely be traded at the All-Star break, because there's no way this team can compete if Soriano struggles at the plate.

Is Ryan Zimmerman ready?

He sure looks like it. The 21-yearold third baseman batted .397 in a September call-up and bashed the ball this spring. He had trouble at third this March, however,which is surprising because his defense is supposed to be ahead of his bat. Zimmerman, the club's top draft pick last June out of the University of Virginia, seemingly has the makeup to succeed in the major leagues. And the organization is committed to sticking with him even if he struggles early.

Is John Patterson for real?

The Nationals had better hope so. Patterson, 28, began last season as the No. 5 starter and emerged as a potential ace. The 6-foot-5 righthander has the ability to be a consistent double-digit winner in the major leagues, but he needs to build on last season's 9-7 record and 3.13 ERA. He had an excellent spring, and it's hard to believe last year was a fluke.

Can rookie center fielder Brandon Watson set the table? Watson, who hit .355 in 372 Triple- A at-bats last season, won the center- field position in spring training by hitting the other way, bunting and getting on base. Ryan Church was sent to the minors but could return if Watson struggles, as he did in a brief major league stint last season.

Is ex-All Star Jose Vidro healthy?

Once the face of the Montreal Expos, the second baseman has been hampered by myriad injuries the past two years. He worked out all offseason and decided not to play for Puerto Rico in March so he could concentrate on Nationals camp. He says he is healthy. But you have to wonder whether his body will quit on him again.

Will the team ever have an owner?

Sure. Someday. But you can't count on it happening soon, because Major League Baseball has dragged its feet up to this point. Getting the stadium funding shored up was at least a step in the right direction. Once an owner is in place, the front office will have a much better chance at luring desirable free agents and making key trades for the betterment of the franchise.

Is Frank Robinson's job secure?

Well, considering that he didn't have a contract until mid- December after nearly winning National League Manager of the Year, the answer has to be no. If the team starts out slowly, his job could be in jeopardy. Then again, it would be silly to fire him without an owner in place, since the new owner might sweep away everyone anyway. Plus, Robinson is the most recognizable name and face in a Nationals uniform.

Is the honeymoon over?

People packed old RFK last year initially to see the novelty of baseball in Washington. They kept coming back because this unheralded team was in the middle of a pennant race for most of the season. But if the team struggles in year two, it's possible the crowds will find another place to spend their money in such a busy town. Still, the Nationals made plenty of fans last year and it would be hard to believe they won't be back in force in 2006.

Who will replace Esteban Loaiza?

One of the main reasons the Nationals stayed in the race for so long is that they had three solid starters in Livan Hernandez, John Patterson and Esteban Loaiza. But Loaiza left for big money from the Oakland Athletics during the offseason and the Nationals need someone to fill the void. The current choices are journeymen Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Astacio and often-injured Tony Armas. Ortiz is the best bet. He is a former 16-game winner and, at 32, this is a make-or-break season for him.

Can Chad Cordero duplicate 2005?

It will be tough. The Chief became an All-Star in his second full major league season and at 23 was the youngest in history to record a 40-save season. It's unlikely he'll beable to re-create a 47-save season, especially with dependable setupman Luis Ayala gone for the year.Still, Cordero is good enough to be a competent closer for years tocome, even if he isn't as dominatingas last season.

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