VIERA, Fla. -- Nick Johnson spent most of his days last year with his Washington Nationals teammates, at home or on the road, enjoying clubhouse camaraderie and rehabbing his surgically repaired right hip while eyeing a return to his job. As Johnson sat on the sideline, his replacement at first base, Dmitri Young, played so well that he earned National League comeback player of the year honors.
Young was so exceptional, in fact, that Nationals general manager Jim Bowden gave him a two-year, $10 million extension midway through last season. Johnson, meanwhile, continued fielding ground balls, taking batting practice on a wobbly leg and hoping he'd have a chance to reclaim his old job this spring.
Johnson, of course, does have a shot, but Young's got an opportunity to win the slot, too. So one of the more complicated and interesting position battles is being fought this spring in this obscure town filled with farmland. What's more, both men consider themselves close.
"He's a good player, a good friend," Johnson says as he and Young trade lighthearted barbs. "I like hanging out with him. He's fun, real fun. We both want to play every day. So we just go out and have fun and let things happen. We both want to be here but there's only one spot."
Will the spot go to the 29-year-old Johnson, who hit .290 with 77 RBIs and 23 homers in 147 games in 2006 before breaking his leg? Or to Young, 34, who batted .320 with 74 RBIs and a .387 on-base percentage as an All-Star last year?
"It's out of both our control," says Young, who adds he's been asked too much about it already this spring. "Quite frankly, it gives people something to talk about. It's not my problem and it's not his problem."
Mets catcher Brian Schneider, who spent his entire career with the Expos/Nationals until joining New York this past offseason, is good friends with both players and declined to handicap the fight for first base.
"How do you sit either one of those guys on the bench?" Schneider says. "They're both guys that play every day and put up numbers. People forget how good of a year Nick had in 2005. People forgot what kind of year he had in '06. We all know what he's capable of doing."
Schneider also saw Young have an All-Star season up close in 2007.
"Dmitri asked to play at first base, and when he did, there was a reason he was comeback player of the year," Schneider says. "He came back and did amazing things. It meant a lot to him to make that All-Star team. And I was happy to see him get that. It's a tough situation they have there because they're both great ball players and both very good at what they do."
The tough decision will now fall on Bowden and manager Manny Acta. For now, they're willing to let it play out. And as many players point out, last year the team struggled with depth on the bench. But can it really come to that?
"We have so much time in front of us," Acta says, "we're just going to wait until the end of spring."
The favorite: Johnson