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SPRING TRAINING nationals report Team starts sorting through bargain bin SPRING TRAINING

February 14, 2007 1:10 am

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Jason Simontacchi is one of a host of journeymen pitchers the Nationals hope can earn a spot in the majors. 0214nationalsmm03.jpg

Nationals pitcher Jon Rauch reported to camp yesterday with the pitchers and catchers.

BY TODD JACOBSON

VIERA, Fla.

--Shawn Hill lives a few blocks from Space Coast Stadium and has spent his winter working out at the Washington Nationals' training facility.

And from his corner locker at the Carl Barger Complex, the right-hander has watched a steady stream of unfamiliar faces stroll through the doors over the last few days.

He's greeted each one of his potential new teammates--some of the 71 players who will be in camp with the Nationals this spring--with a handshake and a few kind words, but even he is having trouble keeping track of the growing number of unrecognizable faces milling around the clubhouse these days.

"As everyone comes in, little by little, I've tried to get to know them, but it's going to take awhile," Hill said.

The Nationals' offseason binge on bargain pitching finally became a reality yesterday, with hurlers from near and far--some familiar, many unrecognizable--arriving as pitchers and catchers reported to the Nationals' training facility in Viera.

Of the 71 players in camp, 38 will be pitchers, and nearly half will be in competition for four spots in Washington's starting rotation.

Right-hander John Patterson has a lock on one starting gig; the rest will be sorted and sifted from an eclectic group that includes its share of aging veterans and rookies.

Right-hander Jason Simontacchi, 36, has pitched with the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as three different independent league teams and an Italian professional squad. Left-hander Matt Chico is 23, and he's never pitched above Double-A.

Hill fits in somewhere in between. The 25-year-old right-hander had a 4.66 ERA in six games last year before he was shelved due to pain in his surgically repaired right elbow, and for a group Hill playfully described as a "mob," he's close to a veteran.

"There are so many guys, nobody has any idea right now how it'll work out," Hill said. "I figure they have an idea--maybe 10 guys or so--but beyond that I have no idea. I figure probably a week or two into games it'll shake out."

But first, the hellos

As players trickled in yesterday, there were handshakes and backslaps and more than a few first-time introductions.

"It's kind of weird in the beginning, but once you get into it it's fine," said right-hander Jerome Williams, who was signed last month after spending much of last year in Triple-A with the Cubs.

Williams, of course, only has to worry about himself.

Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire and manager Manny Acta must put together a rotation from the dozen or so candidates in camp, not an easy task.

On Acta's first day on the job, he met with his coaching staff for 31/2 hours, detailing job responsibilities and coaching points. He stressed improving the Nationals' league-worst defense and base-running, but clearly, the starting rotation is at the top of his agenda.

"We're not just after guys that think they have the best chance of making a big league club over here," Acta said. "We are looking for the people that are going to help us win and help us for the long run, too.

"If you're here with the frame of mind that, 'I am here because I have a chance to make a big league club,' and you don't bring to the table what we're looking for, you're not going to be here long enough."

There certainly are plenty of pitchers looking for just that opportunity. If there was a reason why Tim Redding, Chris Michalak, Simontacchi and Williams have ended up wearing Nationals' jerseys, it's the chance at a starting job and a return to the big leagues.

Williams and Michalak pitched briefly in the majors last year. Simontacchi pitched with Bridgeport of the independent Atlantic League, while Redding spent the year at Triple-A with the White Sox.

"It's wide open and you just have to compete," Williams said. "That's what I am here for: to compete. Hopefully I can make the spot. If not, hopefully I can come up later on. My goal is to try to make the team out of spring."

Such a plethora of pitchers presents its share of logistical problems. When the Nationals begin playing spring training games March 2, at least two starters will throw in every game, leaving only a few weeks of solid mound time for many of the hurlers. By the last 10 days of spring, St. Claire said he'd like to start finalizing the rotation.

St. Claire has already watched video of some pitchers--he mentioned that he was intrigued by Redding and Simontacchi in particular.

Clearly, the evaluation is already starting.

"These guys should be coming in here ready to roll," he said. "They've got to be because they have to impress us. Every outing is very important to them."

Todd Jacobson: 540/735-
Email: 1974tjacobson@freelancestar.com




SPRINGTIME IN FLORIDA Free Lance-Star reporter Todd Jacobson is in Viera, Fla., reporting from spring training.



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