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Competition for rotation spots heats up

Competition for final rotation spots heats up

VIERA, Fla. -- The Nationals' starting pitching has been the main focus of Spring Training. Right-hander John Patterson is the staff ace, but who follows him in the rotation is anybody's guess.

When the Grapefruit League season started, there were 14 candidates for the four remaining spots in the rotation. The list has since been trimmed, with more cuts to come on Thursday.

With that mind, MLB.com decided to handicap the list of candidates and where they stand with the team.

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The favorites

Shawn Hill, RHP: He is clearly the best starter in camp, giving up two earned runs in nine innings. Manager Manny Acta said he never doubted Hill's abilities on the mound.

Acta was the third-base coach for the Expos when he saw Hill impress the organization with his poise against Major League teams. The team first took notice of Hill back in March 2004, when he struck out Albert Pujols looking.

The big question is whether he can stay healthy for a full season. He hasn't played a full season since 2003, because of right elbow reconstruction surgery. Hill is currently nursing tightness in his right forearm, but he said it's nothing serious.

Jason Simontacchi, RHP: Before Hill made his start on Monday, Simontacchi was leading the Nationals in innings pitched, proving -- so far -- that his shoulder problems are a thing of the past.

"I never had any questions as to how it was going to be coming [into Spring Training]," Simontacchi said. "I pitched 20-30 innings in the Dominican Republic, and I pitched in Independent ball, too. The shoulder hasn't bothered me at all. I'm at a point where I haven't worried about it."

Simontacchi's ERA should be a lot a better, but the wind at Space Coast Stadium has helped some of the opposing teams score runs.

Simontacchi's big test will come against the World Series champion Cardinals on Wednesday in Jupiter. Simontacchi pitched for St. Louis from 2002-04 and will face the Cards for the first time in his career.

"It will be fun," he said. "It will be a good game. I will be competing against my teammates I played with for three years."

Jason Bergmann, RHP: After a rough season as a starter and reliever in 2006, Bergmann appeared to be a long shot to make the 25-man roster. But he rededicated himself during the offseason.

Instead of starting his workouts in January, Bergmann began in early December. He even threw batting practice before going to Spring Training.

"I've done well in two outings," Bergmann said recently. "I want to be one of those four guys [in the rotation]. I've done my best. I came in a lot more ready than any time in the past. I worked out harder. I started pitching earlier."

Matt Chico, LHP: The Nationals haven't had a quality left-handed starter since Carlos Perez went 12-13 with a 4.21 ERA in 1997. Chico could end the drought. He has had mixed results thus far, but that doesn't seem to bother Acta.

Acta has often said that Chico is not afraid when there is trouble on the mound. For example, in the third inning of Friday's game, Chico struck out Miguel Tejada with the bases loaded.

"That was a big test for him. I'm happy with the way he threw the ball," Acta said.

Levale Speigner, RHP: He didn't make his first appearance in an exhibition game until last Friday against the Orioles, because the Nationals were trying to stretch him out in the accelerated intrasquad games at the Carl Barger complex. Speigner has been a reliever most of his career.

Waiting for Speigner to pitch in an exhibition game was worth it. He held the Orioles scoreless in 3 2/3 innings and struck out two batters.

Let's see some results

Tim Redding, RHP: There was a feeling that Redding had a leg up on everybody because he played for Acta in the Minor Leagues, but Acta hasn't showed any signs of favoritism, and Redding isn't expecting any either.

However, the Redding/Acta reunion isn't working so far. Redding has had two bad outings, and pitching coach Randy St. Claire has said that Redding is trying to do too much. All Redding needs to do is relax on the mound.

Jerome Williams, RHP: In his first start, Williams became rattled after shortstop D'Angelo Jimenez made an error in the second inning against the Braves on March 5. Williams had a hard time getting hitters out after that.

In his next outing, Williams had a difficult time throwing first-pitch strikes and was in trouble for most of the time he was on the mound against the Mets last Saturday. In fact, Acta went so far as to say that the Nationals' defense saved Williams from enduring a rough outing.

Mike Bacsik, LHP: He has given up seven runs in three innings, but he may have saved himself when he got the Nationals out of a bases-loaded jam in the third inning against the Dodgers on Sunday. With one out, Bascik came on in relief and induced Jeff Kent to hit into a double play to end the inning.

Sinking fast

Joel Hanrahan, RHP: He has had a tough time throwing strikes, and it has cost him dearly. Hanrahan has given up eight runs in 2 2/3 innings.

Colby Lewis, RHP: He is very confident in his abilities on the mound, but opposing hitters seem to think otherwise. Lewis has given up eight runs on 11 hits in 4 1/3 innings.

Not in the plans

Chris Michalak, LHP: He had a respectable 3.18 ERA in three games, but the Nationals sent him to Minor League camp. The team didn't like the fact he didn't throw enough first-pitch strikes and that he walked too many hitters. Michalak was also informed that if he stays with the Nationals, he will be a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen.

We have other plans for you

Billy Traber, LHP: Acta announced on Monday that Traber is no longer a candidate for the rotation, even though the left-hander has pitched very well this spring. The organization feels he is better suited for the bullpen.

Where did he go?

Beltran Perez, RHP: He has spent most of his time in the accelerated camp. He has pitched only three innings against Major Leaguers, and that gives an indication that Acta considers him a reliever.

Planning for midseason

Brandon Claussen, LHP: The Nationals signed him knowing that he would start the season on the disabled list. He was still recovering from left shoulder surgery. The team is hoping that Claussen will be ready to pitch in a game by June.

Mike O'Connor, LHP: Like Claussen, O'Connor will start on the disabled list because minor left elbow surgery. So far this spring, O'Connor has been limited to playing catch on flat ground. He is hoping he can start playing in Minor League games sometime in April.

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

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