'We remain in building mode': Nats have work to do

Updated: February 13, 2009, 7:24 PM ET
Associated Press

VIERA, Fla. -- Adam Dunn was assigned a locker in the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium in between the spots occupied by Josh Willingham and Austin Kearns.

On Kearns' other side is Nick Johnson's stall, then Ryan Zimmerman's.

The health and production of those five players could go a long way toward determining how things go in 2009 for the Washington Nationals, whose pitchers and catchers begin reporting to spring training Saturday.

From Dunn's fielding position to Johnson's recovery from his latest injury, from Zimmerman's contract status to holes in the rotation and bullpen, the Nationals come to camp with all sorts of concerns. That certainly makes sense: This is, after all, a club that lost a majors-high 102 games last season.

"Obviously," team president Stan Kasten said, "we remain in building mode."

A big piece -- 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds, to be precise -- was put in place just this week, when Dunn signed his $20 million, two-year contract. His annual 40-homer, 100-RBI production fills a significant gap in the batting order, to be sure.

No one else on the current roster hit more than 15 homers in the majors last season.

"When you bring in a proven hitter like this, it does take a lot of pressure -- on the field, off the field, in the dugout, in the clubhouse, on the bus, on the airplane -- off of all the younger kids," general manager Jim Bowden said. "We wanted to do that."

Even when it comes to Dunn, though, there is a key question: Where will he play, first base or left field?

"Doesn't matter," Dunn said.

The answer will hinge on what happens with Johnson, the first baseman who missed all of 2007 with a broken leg, then played in only 38 games in 2008, when he needed surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right wrist.

Johnson already has been taking batting practice in Florida and manager Manny Acta said the player "feels very close to 100 percent."

Picturing a batting order with Johnson and Dunn made Acta smile.

"What a great lineup it could be -- having two guys that are close to .400 on-base percentage, left-handed bats with pop," Acta said.

Even if Dunn winds up at first base -- because, say, Johnson is not ready on opening day or is traded -- there is a glut in the outfield. That includes Willingham (part of the trade that also brought left-handed starter Scott Olsen from Florida) and Kearns (.217, seven homers, 32 RBIs in 2008, when he landed on the DL with elbow and foot injuries), along with Lastings Milledge (team-high 61 RBIs last season), Elijah Dukes (13 HRs, 44 RBIs in 276 at-bats), Wily Mo Pena and Willie Harris.

"That's the most glaring competition that we have out there," Acta said. "Options, options, options -- always good -- and competition."

Also up in the air is who will be the starting second baseman, with Ronnie Belliard, Anderson Hernandez and Alberto Gonzalez in the mix.

One position that's set is third base, thanks to Zimmerman. But he hasn't arrived yet in Viera and might not be here for Thursday's first official full-squad workout. That's because he doesn't have a deal in place for 2009; this is his first year of arbitration, and a hearing is scheduled for Feb. 20.

"I don't think that would be smart for me to participate without a contract. Not a very smart move on my part," Zimmerman said. "As soon as I get that stuff squared away, I'll be there, ready to go."

Bowden has said his goal is a long-term deal with Zimmerman, who has made clear he would like to get that done, too.

"It's all part of the business. I don't think there's any hard feelings, either way," Zimmerman said this week. "I respect them, and I'm pretty sure they respect me."

As for pitching, there are three rotation spots secured: Olsen (8-11, 4.20 ERA, 201 2-3 innings for the Marlins in 2008), holdover John Lannan (9-15, 3.91 ERA, 31 starts) and free-agent signing Daniel Cabrera (8-10, 5.25 ERA with the Orioles).

Those bidding for the other slots include Shawn Hill, Odalis Perez, Collin Balester, Shairon Martis, Jorge Sosa and top prospect Jordan Zimmermann.

The bullpen is another matter. Joel Hanrahan became the closer last season after Chad Cordero was injured and Jon Rauch was traded away. There are doubts about who else will be in the relief corps.

But Bowden does not sound interested in shoring up that part of his team via a late free-agent signing.

"The best way to solve our issues are trades," he said. "Our philosophical view is we're not good enough yet to waste the dollars in the sixth-seventh inning, seventh-eighth inning."

Note: LHP Matt Chico, who had reconstructive elbow surgery in July, threw Friday at the Nationals' spring complex. He hopes to be throwing to batters next month and expects to continue his rehab work in Florida through June.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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