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Hot Spot (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday February 26, 2008 12:43PM; Updated: Tuesday February 26, 2008 2:24PM
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The man in charge

Nick Johnson
Nick Johnson continues his recovery from a broken leg suffered in 2006.
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Bowden is, by any measure, an absolute piece of work. Take that in both senses of the phrase. He is not particularly well-liked by some of his fellow general managers. He is brash. He is relentless. He's made some, shall we say, questionable dealings with other teams. But he also is, as anyone will tell you, willing to take chances that most GMs wouldn't even consider.

And a lot of times his moves work. Along with some bombs, he's often brilliant in his assessments.

Bowden lounges behind the wheel of an electric four-seat cart outside of a batting cage on a practice field at the Space Coast Stadium complex, in jeans and a sport shirt, watching his players work out. Bowden sees potential. He sees guys dying for a chance.

"If he's got it in him," Bowden says, speaking of the lefty Perez, though he could be talking about any of a dozen or more players in camp, "he's in an environment to succeed."

Perez, 30, is a perfect example of what Bowden and the Nationals are trying to do. Shunned by the Braves as hard-headed years ago, a washout with the Dodgers and the Royals, a stunningly slimmed-down Perez -- about 15 pounds lighter than he was last year -- is a non-roster invitee to this camp. He's healthy. He still has "stuff." Yet no one else wanted him.

Estrada's another one. He's entering his eighth season in the bigs and he's on his fifth team. And that doesn't count the Mets, who had him for a couple minutes this winter. He was in the middle of a very public scrap with his manager in Milwaukee last season. He has a sore throwing arm.

"Another year, another team," he joked, sitting on a stool in front of his locker in the clubhouse.

"They might help us," Bowden, with a little shrug of his shoulders, says of Perez and Estrada. "They might not. But there's no risk!"

Then there's Milledge. Bowden was given a chance to make a trade for a player whom the Mets would not have considered moving a season earlier. The go-for-it GM snapped it up.

"Jim Bowden is a good judge of character," says Young, a man whose character has been questioned a lot and who rediscovered his game in Washington last year, thanks to Bowden. "This organization will help you rise."

The team

Check out the Nationals and one thing that'll smack you is the size of some of the hitters. Young is a bear of a man, 240 pounds if he's an ounce. Pena is a monster, listed at 6-foot-3, 215 and looking way more than that. Justin Maxwell is a 6-5 outfielder who crunched two homers in 15 games in a September callup. He's probably headed to the minors for more seasoning. Dukes, the former Devil Rays phenom, is huge.

The other thing that'll strike you, out here in the middle of this patch of East Florida scrub brush a tick off of I-95, is the sheer size of this camp. Not only the physical dimensions, which include fields that are so far away from the stadium that a lot of players drive to them. But the Nationals have a whopping 77 players fighting for a spot on the big-league club, making this camp look like an overblown episode of Survivor: Viera. Bowden objects to the notion that he's throwing a lot of guys out there to see who sticks. Instead, he says, he has to bring a lot of people to camp to restock a barren Triple-A team. Someday in the next couple of years he hopes to have no more than 52 or 53 players here.

Whatever the case, it makes for a camp filled with desperate players jogging from station to station, trying to catch the eye of someone who has a say.

The outlook

Last year, after beginning the season 9-25, the Nationals finished 64-64, one heck of an achievement for a team that many figured would easily lose 100 games. ("If you would have seen us at the beginning of March," Bowden says, "you would have said this was a team that would lose 100 games.") This year's team, with its diverse talent, should be better.

The Nationals' outfield could be very good, with Dukes, Milledge, Pena and Austin Kearns. Bowden likes the look of the bullpen. The infield, though weak up the middle offensively, should be OK, especially with now-healthy Nick Johnson -- Bowden calls him a "difference maker" -- pushing Young at first base.

Most of the questions, as with many teams, are with the rotation. If the Nationals can hit on a couple of longshots there -- someone like Perez, or some other guys that Bowden still has his eye on -- they could be better than last year. They have a new ballpark opening at the end of next month which, compared to the longball-sucking RFK Stadium, can only help the lineup. They have a deeper team. They have a load of hungry players.

"I think we're going to compete," says Milledge. "And not only compete, but ... you hear about New York can win and Philly can win. Why can't we talk that we're going to win the division, too? I'm not saying we will. But we're in this thing to win the NL East."

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