Around the Horn: Outfielders

Left fielder to be determined this spring

The following is the fourth in a series of weekly stories on examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: outfielders.

In 2006, the Nationals' starting outfield on Opening Day against the Mets consisted of Alfonso Soriano in left, Brandon Watson in center and Jose Guillen in right. None of the three is on the roster in 2007, but Washington is confident that Nook Logan and Austin Kearns will be mainstays in center and right, respectively. The Nats' left-field situation will not be settled until the end of Spring Training.

Logan spent most of last season in the Tigers' Minor League system, but after being traded to the Nationals on Sept. 1 for cash considerations, he became the everyday center fielder, the eighth for the Nationals, and he looks like a keeper. He played sparkling defense and surprised many with his bat, going 35-for-90 (.300) with a home run and eight RBIs.

It's because of Logan's defensive prowess that manager Manny Acta has decided to give him the starting nod entering Spring Training. Acta pointed out that Washington was one of the worst defensive teams in baseball in 2006, and he feels that Logan's presence will improve matters up the middle.

"We had such a horrible defense last year, and that has to be addressed," Acta said. "It's a big part of what we are trying to do. Having two shortstops [Cristian Guzman and Felipe Lopez] up the middle, [along with] Logan and [catcher Brian] Schneider, our defense is going to be a good one."

Logan, 27, still needs to improve with the bat. Though he has a Major League swing from the right side, he's unorthodox from the left and has problems hitting breaking balls. Logan said that he wants to remain a switch-hitter, and there is hope that hitting coach Mitchell Page can work his magic.

Kearns, who was acquired from the Reds in an eight-player trade last July, is expected to be one of the team's run producers. Last year, the 26-year-old Kearns played a full season for the first time in his big-league career, and he hit .264 with 26 home runs and 86 RBIs. He also led the Nationals in game-winning RBIs. In the previous four years, either injuries or demotions to the Minors slowed his progress.

Kearns is a very good defensive right fielder. He plays shallow and prevents bloopers from falling in for base hits.

"I'm most happy getting a full season in, playing every day and not missing any time," Kearns said. "But I think there is room for improvement, and I can do better. It's nice that I don't have to hear the questions like, 'Can you stay healthy?' or 'Can you play for a full season?' You get tired of answering those questions every year. I understand the questions, because of the history. I know I can play every day, and it's nice to finally be doing it."

Washington Nationals
Catchers: Schneider leads the way
Corner IF: Corners in good hands
Middle IF: Lopez moves for Guzman
Outfielders: Four men for one spot
Starters: Rotation wide open
Bullpen: A strength with Cordero
DH/Bench: Open competition

As for left field, Kory Casto, Ryan Church, Alex Escobar and Chris Snelling will be battling for the starting spot.

Casto is considered by many to be the front-runner. He began the 2006 season as the starting third baseman for Double-A Harrisburg. Before the July trade deadline, however, assistant general manager Bob Boone told him to switch to left field, as the Nationals were planning to call him up if Soriano was traded before the deadline.

In 2005, Casto -- the organization's Minor League Player of the Year the last two seasons -- hit .290 with 22 home runs and 90 RBIs for Class A Potomac. Last season, he had a .272 average with 20 home runs and 80 RBIs for Harrisburg. He also spent time in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .302 with nine RBIs.

Church had an up-and-down season, spending half the time in the Minors. But he finished strong, hitting .276 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs.

Acta placed a call to Church in December, and he gave the young outfielder nothing but positive reinforcement. Church, according to Acta, was happy to hear from his new boss, and feels he can have a fresh start with the Nationals in 2007.

"I've always gotten along with Church when I was in Montreal," Acta said. "It's going to be up to him. This is a make-or-break year for him to show the world what he can do, or go in the other direction by becoming a fourth [outfielder]."

No one has ever questioned Escobar's talent with the bat or glove, but he has had problems staying healthy over the last five years. Last year, his season came to an end in late August after he separated his shoulder diving back to first base.

Escobar is expected to be 100 percent by Spring Training, and Acta said that he was going to give Escobar a chance to win the job.

Snelling, 25, who was acquired from the Mariners in the Jose Vidro trade last December, has some big-league experience. In 59 games, he's hit .237 with five home runs and 12 RBIs. But he comes with caution, as he has been injury-prone during his eight years in professional baseball. Snelling has had 10 operations, seven of which were on his left knee. He first hurt the knee in 2002, tearing his ACL while trying to stop at third base.

Snelling's best season was in 2001, when he hit .336 with seven home runs and 73 RBIs for Class A San Bernardino. He had his worst season in 2006, hitting .216 with five home runs and 39 RBIs for Triple-A Tacoma.

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