Infield glut a good problem for Nats

Infield glut a good problem for Nats

WASHINGTON -- During the 2008 season, a lot of baseball experts will keep their eyes on the Nationals' rotation and see if the starters can stay healthy. But during Spring Training, the starters will take a backseat to the competition at first base, the middle-infield spots and behind the plate.

In December, the Nationals signed Paul Lo Duca to be their everyday catcher, but he injured his left knee in a New York gym in January. He is expected to miss four to six weeks.

A couple of days after Lo Duca's surgery, Washington signed Johnny Estrada to a one-year deal. According to the switch-hitting Estrada, he is expected to compete for a starting spot. The Nationals were in need of a left-handed hitter because they were heavy on right-handed bats.

"The best player is going to play," Estrada said. "I know they gave Lo Duca a pretty nice contract. I signed kind of a backup deal. From my understanding, whoever plays best is going to get the bulk of the playing time. I know they wanted a left-handed bat in that lineup. That's what I bring to table. The bottom line is, everywhere I go, I try to make the team into a winner."

Ninety feet away, Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young will fight for the first-base job. General manager Jim Bowden already announced that Young has the job entering Spring Training.

Johnson missed the entire 2007 season with a broken right leg. Young stepped in and had a nice comeback season, hitting .320 with 13 home runs and 74 RBIs. Young also brought leadership to the clubhouse. He is always helping young players, and this year will be no different. Young is expected to be a mentor for troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes, who was acquired in an offseason trade with the Rays.

"As we walk into Spring Training, Dmitri Young is our first baseman," Bowden said. "He deserves it. He finished in the top 10 in hitting [in 2007]. He improved defensively, and his leadership skills in the clubhouse were phenomenal. So he is obviously the first baseman."

Johnson, who is 100 percent healthy, is a very good first baseman himself. His best season was in 2006, when he set career highs in runs scored (100), home runs (23) and on-base percentage (.428). He is also considered an upgrade over Young defensively.

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"I talked to Nick Johnson, and he is healthy," Bowden said. "He is already running the bases. He is doing extremely well. He feels great. I think we can all be optimistic there is a good possibility that he comes into Spring Training at 100 percent, which will create good competition. It's healthy for a club."

Then there is the competition at the middle-infield spots. For now, shortstop Cristian Guzman and second baseman Ronnie Belliard are expected to be the double-play combination. Then there is Felipe Lopez, coming off his worst season as an everyday player.

The Nationals need a high-OBP leadoff hitter, and, privately, Washington believes Lopez can be that guy. If Lopez is the leadoff hitter, that would mean Guzman or Belliard would have to be on the bench.

It's hard to believe that Belliard would sit. Bowden and manager Manny Acta often praised Belliard for the job he did last year as a reserve and an everyday second baseman. It would most likely mean that Guzman and Lopez would have to fight for the job at shortstop.

Guzman, who missed most of the 2007 season with a left thumb injury, has to show that he is healthy. He was having his best season as a member of the Nationals before he was hurt.

"Cristian Guzman will come into Spring Training as the shortstop," Bowden said. "That being said, we all know Felipe Lopez has the potential to be better than both Belliard and Guzman. Whether or not Lopez does, it's up to him. He has to do it on the field. He can't get playing time based on potential."

"Certainly, Lopez has the potential to be a good leadoff hitter. He is coming off a very poor year, but he is only 27. There is no reason why he can't rebound, but he has to do it on the field. He will be given very opportunity to beat out Belliard or Guzman. The best players are going to play to win."

Lopez vowed recently that he will make a comeback and be the player who scored 98 runs in 2006.

"They are a little skeptical, but I know I can do the job," Lopez said. "A lot of people have had bad years -- a lot of good players -- and they bounce back. That what I want to do. I want to bounce back."

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