Notes: Middle infield intrigues Acta

Notes: Middle infield intrigues Acta

VIERA, Fla. -- Nationals manager Manny Acta said the most intriguing competition this spring is between middle infielders Ronnie Belliard, Cristian Guzman and Felipe Lopez.

The skipper acknowledged that entering Spring Training, Belliard and Guzman are the front-runners to play second base and shortstop, respectively, but Acta is hoping that Lopez can bounce back and be the player who scored 98 runs with a .358 on-base percentage in 2005. Those kinds of numbers would be a big boost for Washington at the leadoff spot.

Last year, Lopez had his worst season as a regular, hitting .245 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs.

"[Lopez] comes in having a chance to start at either one [of those positions] on Opening Day," Acta said. "Everybody knows the talent that he has and everybody has seen what he is capable of doing. If Felipe shows that he is back to his old self, I'll make the best decision for our ballclub.

"Lopez is probably the most talented out of the three. As [general manager] Jim [Bowden] mentioned to you guys, potential is not going to win you innings out there. I hope for the best of our ballclub that Felipe is ... the Felipe Lopez of two years ago. That would really help me out [when it comes to] writing that lineup and having some serious depth on our ballclub."

Guzman is another player who has to prove himself. Like Lopez, Guzman is a free agent after the 2008 season, and he hasn't lived up to his four-year, $16.8 million contract. The last two years, for example, Guzman has played in only 46 games -- all in '07 -- because of injuries. The reason he has the shortstop job entering Spring Training is because of a .328 batting average and a .380 on-base percentage last year. Guzman, who had an injured left thumb, is expected to come in healthy next week.

"I just saw him two weeks ago, by coincidence," Acta said. "He looks fine. He looks ready to go. We had a good talk. This is the last year of his contract. He's a fairly young guy. He knows he has to go out there and play well."

Of the three infielders, Belliard had the best season last year, hitting .290 with 11 home runs and 58 RBIs. He started the season as a reserve, but ended up playing every day by late June when Guzman hurt his thumb.

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Looking good: Acta said that he feels more at ease about this year's club than the one in 2007.

Last year, for example, Acta had to audition 12 starters for his rotation, while the center-field position was in a state of flux. Now, Lastings Milledge is slated to start in center, while John Patterson, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, John Lannan and Matt Chico make up the projected starting rotation, although Acta said there will be competition when it comes to the starting staff.

With more talent on the roster, Acta believes the Nationals will be competitive this year.

"We are starting 0-0 on Opening Day," Acta said. "I'm not going to pick another team to win. I'm here to win, and until I lose, I'm here to win. And I don't care who I'm playing against. ... I think every team is a team to beat, and I think we proved that at the end of the season last year. The teams that were in the fight, they really needed to beat us."

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