Overhauled roster gets camp started

Nationals hit camp ready for bigger things

VIERA, Fla. -- With pitchers and catchers reporting, Saturday marks the second season of the Washington Nationals, and one thing is certain: The 2006 version is Jim Bowden's team. The general manager overhauled the Nationals this offseason after they finished in fifth place in the National League East with an 81-81 record in 2005.

For starters, Bowden traded Vinny Castilla to the Padres in order to clear a spot for rookie Ryan Zimmerman to be the starting third baseman. The team's first-round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft has already arrived in camp and was spotted playing catch with catcher Brian Schneider at Space Coast Stadium around 11 a.m. ET.

After losing Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco, two members of the starting rotation, Bowden traded for Brian Lawrence and signed free agent Ramon Ortiz. Both Lawrence and Ortiz come into camp believing that they can be better than they were last year, when the duo lost a combined 26 games. Spacious Robert F. Kennedy Stadium should help improve their numbers.

Bowden wanted high-energy coaches, so he relieved Tom McCraw, third-base coach Dave Huppert and Don Buford of their duties this offseason and hired Davey Lopes, Mitchell Page and Tony Beasly, all of whom spent two hours on Saturday morning in a meeting with manager Frank Robinson discussing their game plan for Spring Training.

"I think we have gone in the right direction in terms of getting better," Bowden said. "I just think it's going to take time to where we want to go. It's about the young players. We have a pretty good corps of young guys that keep getting better. When you have young guys, they get better and have enthusiasm."

The Nationals' relief pitching is expected to be better than ever, and it's led by a young player. Chad Cordero, 23, was among the best closers in the Major Leagues in 2005, while Gary Majewski, 25, and Luis Ayala, 28, were the primary setup men.

"We have a lot of new faces, a lot of guys in camp," said Majewski. "It's going to be great to see the guys again. It has been a pretty long winter."

With workouts starting on Sunday, Majewski can't wait to start throwing the baseball on the mound again. This past offseason was the first time he didn't play in the Arizona Fall League, winter ball or the Instructional League.

"It's the first time I had the whole entire winter off," said Majewski. "I'm ready to get back at it."

Robert Fick and Matt LeCroy are ready to be Schneider's backup catchers. Bowden acquired both Fick and LeCroy for their bats, but the organization believes that assistant general manager Bob Boone, a great defensive catcher back in the 1970s and '80s, can help improve their skills behind the plate.

"It means a lot to have Bob Boone helping me out," said LeCroy, who played only 27 games behind the plate the last two years. "The past two years, I haven't caught that much with Joe Mauer being in Minnesota. ... I used to catch bullpens all the time. But I have been working out every day and I'm just ready to go. I'm sure Bob Boone will have a lot of tips to get my throwing down."

Fick was the first to arrive in camp on Saturday morning, while most of his teammates were taking their physicals in another part of town. Accompanying Fick was his cat, Paul Wall. The kitten, just four months old, roamed around the clubhouse for a few minutes before Fick put it in comfortable sports bag. Fick could see Paul Mall through the bag.

While Paul Wall was resting in the bag, Fick tried on his new Nationals helmets. Later, Fick said he wants to help Washington build on last season's .500 record.

"We have a bunch of gritty guys," Fick said. "I'm excited to be here. If you look at the roster, we have a bunch of gamers if you ask me, starting with Livan Hernandez."

Besides Zimmerman, outfielder Ryan Church, first baseman Nick Johnson and infielder Brendan Harris reported to camp six days early. Church is competing with Marlon Byrd and Brandon Watson for the center-field job, while Johnson, a free agent after the season, is out to prove that he can finally play a full season without getting injured and Harris would like to stay on the big-league roster for a full season.

"I feel like I'm accustomed to Spring Training," Church said. "It's like, just hurry up and get it over with. Let's start it up again and strap it on. I'm really eager. You can bet I'm going to do well."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.