Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters: A Few Nats Notes

I'll level with you. The most pressing question on my mind is whether or not Washington Nationals' GM has secured a flux capacitor-equipped DeLorean destined for the year 2002. That way, the GM's recent acquisitions of Brett Boone and Odalis Perez would look a whole lot more exciting.

However, excitement is one thing the Nats' spring training complex will not lack this season. As the camp progresses, I'll be keeping my eyes on these intriguing issues … though, I will also keep them peeled for the Libyans.  


Who's on First?

The return of Nick Johnson is one of the major storylines of the spring in the Nationals' camp. Unfortunately, even if Johnson regains every bit of the form that propelled him to a .290 average with 23 home runs and 46 doubles in 2006, it's unlikely he can displace the incumbent Dmitri Young.

You can't blame the Nats for the impending either/or situation. Five months ago, it looked like Johnson may never play again, while Young was in the middle of a renaissance that saw him bat .320 and emerge as a leader in the Nationals' clubhouse. Assuming that Johnson makes a complete comeback, and the early signs have been very positive, he almost certainly will be the one getting dealt.

Not only is Johnson younger (29, Young is 34) thus bringing higher value in a trade, but the Nationals need Young in the fold. Twice during the offseason Jim Bowden brought in players with spotty track records — Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes — and pointed to Young as a mentor. With so much riding on Young's presence, the Nationals aren't about to ship him out, nor are they going to hold Young in reserve after such a monster campaign in 2008. Not to mention, as The Post's Barry Svrluga pointed out, the Nationals have already planned a Dmitri Young Bobblehead night. Nothing says job security like a seven-inch plastic figurine with a wobbly noggin.


A Next-Generation Rotation

Last year the Nats threw spaghetti on the wall and ended up with a starting rotation that reminded some of that scene in “Major League” where the team executive states bluntly: “I've never heard of half of these guys and the ones I do know are way past their prime.” As the season progressed however, those hyperbolic, if humorous, statements were dispelled as Washington discovered some diamonds in the rough.

This season the Nationals are hoping that some of those diamonds — like Shawn Hill (3.42 ERA in 16 starts), Jason Bergmann (better than 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio in 115-plus innings) and Matt Chico (a rotation-best seven wins) — can polish themselves up even more as they compete for a spot in the rotation. Challenging them will be Tyler Clippard, Collin Balester, John Lannan, Garrett Mock and Ross Detwiler. The pool is far more talented and far deeper, if less experienced, than last year's collection.

There's also the question of John Patterson's return from injury last year. In April of 2007, Patterson's velocity was way down and he lacked the power to polish off hitters as he did in 2005. If he can reclaim his heat then the Nationals will gladly welcome a No. 1 starter back to their fold. If not, there will be plenty of young guns trying to claim his roster spot.


Here Comes Trouble?

The Nationals' off-season acquistions of Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Paul LoDuca definitely shook things up. Not only is the trio talented, but they've also been the subject of some less-than-flattering stories of late. Reports repeatedly mentioned Milledge's attitude problems and lax work ethic in New York. Dukes has been dogged by legal issues stemming from a series of threating calls to his estranged wife, NiShea Gilbert, last May. Meanwhile, LoDuca was one of the few active players mentioned in the Mitchell Report, which included copies of signed checks from LoDuca, allegedly used to pay for Human Growth Hormone.

Heck, even the Japanese free-agent signee Katsuhiko Maekawa — inked to a minor-league deal — enters camp with baggage. Maekawa sat out Japan's 2007 while dealing with a hit-and-run charge in his home country.

The new blood could supply some needed fire to the Nats, but it's hard to ignore the rapid influx of off-field issues. How the team handles them will be a storyline throughout the year.


Digging the New Digs?

I might be getting ahead of myself with this one, but I think if you look real hard, you can see the right-field scoreboard of Nationals Park from the spring training camp in Viera, Fla. At least the shuttles taking off from Cape Canaveral can.

RFK was cavernous, plaguing power hitters with its expansive outfield, but keeping opposing hitters in the park as well at times. How will the new dimensions affect the lineup? The pitchers? The President's Race? Those are the hard-hitting questions I am looking forward to having answered in the days ahead.