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Official Beat Writer Roster Predition Post

By this time two weeks from now, we'll know who pitched Opening Night, who was the first baseman, who was the second baseman, who caught and whether the Nationals won. Furthermore, we'll have an idea of whether the traffic into Nationals Park was a disaster or manageable, whether enough of the 41,222 expected there took Metro, whether the beer was cold and Ben's Chili Bowl was popular.

Last week, I asked you all to go through your 25-man rosters. It's that time of spring, it seems. I bounced this off several people in the organization recently, and I'll give you my rundown/prediction (one in which I'll wimp out of making a couple of predictions).

Catcher:
This depends on the health of both Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada. Manny Acta said over the weekend it's unlikely Estrada will be ready for the opener because of tendinitis in his elbow. Because the club would like to let Jesus Flores get regular at-bats, the backup catcher then becomes dependent on the health of Lo Duca.

If Lo Duca is ready to catch five times a week, then the Nationals won't keep Flores in the majors. If, however, Lo Duca can only catch three times a week, then Flores could be the choice.

If Lo Duca's ready - and I'm guessing he will be - then the club will decide between Humberto Cota and Wil Nieves as the backup. Club officials are split right now, but my guess is Nieves wins out.

Prediction (2): Paul Lo Duca, Wil Nieves (until Estrada is healthy)

Infield:
In the minds of most people around here - including the decision-makers -- the first base job has already been decided, and Nick Johnson will be there on Opening Night. I believe Dmitri Young will be the potent bat off the bench from either side, but he has to work himself into better shape to be considered to play every day.

The middle infield is a little murkier, but we know this: Cristian Guzman, Ronnie Belliard and Felipe Lopez will all be on the team - barring a trade. (A guy like Pete Orr is having a great spring, but there's just no place for him.) Belliard is hitting the ball with authority down here, and the brass loves his approach and work ethic. But if Lopez isn't traded - and there's a chance that, if a team such as the Cubs loses out on their second base target (Brian Roberts) that Lopez could serve as a fall-back - would the Nationals put him on the bench, thus risking losing him mentally and failing to showcase him for a potential trade early in the season? A difficult call.

Zimmerman at third, obviously. Aaron Boone makes it as a backup corner guy/right-handed bat off the bench. And I'm of the mind that Willie Harris would make it as a 25th guy/pinch runner/backup at all infield positions and in the outfield as well as a left-handed bat off the bench if the Nats can trade one of the other guys. Again, keep an eye on the Cubs for that.

Prediction (7): Nick Johnson, Ronnie Belliard, Felipe Lopez, Cristian Guzman, Ryan Zimmerman, Dmitri Young, Aaron Boone

Outfield:
Lastings Milledge is set in center, Austin Kearns set in right, and with Wily Mo Pena on the disabled list to start the year, Elijah Dukes will play in left. From there, it would seemingly get murky, what with Ryan Langerhans's excellent defensive ability and improved hitting this spring, Alex Escobar's health, etc. But the folks I've talked to - and Manny Acta has basically said this - believe that Rob Mackowiak was signed to a one-year, $1.5-million contract for a reason. He's versatile, is left-handed (adding more balance to the bench and offering relief to a right-handed heavy lineup) and if the Nationals release him now, they'll owe him 45 days of severance pay. Now, because he has been out with a strained side -- lastings effects from offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia -- it's possible Mackowiak won't be healthy in time. I'm betting he is.

But is that it? Just four outfielders? I think that's correct - if not on Opening Day, then soon thereafter, when they go to 12 pitchers (we'll get to that). In effect, Harris would be the fifth outfielder.

Prediction (4): Austin Kearns, Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Rob Mackowiak

Rotation:
This is murky, and I know there are those who are calling for the head of John Patterson after yesterday's performance. Take a deep breath. He's coming north with the team, and he's either pitching Opening Night or the next day in Philadelphia.

Shawn Hill: He wants to go faster than the Nats want him to go, but he has another bullpen today and - in talking to him a while yesterday - is very encouraged, even hinting he wants to stay on schedule to pitch the opener. Acta is ruling that out, but I believe he could be back the first time they need a fifth starter, which is March 6 in St. Louis, meaning no one would have to go on short rest. (Of course, even if it's just for a few games, they might start Hill on the DL, then activate him for the start, buying themselves an extra body.)

For the rest of my rotation, I'll go with Tim Redding, Jason Bergmann and Odalis Perez, though I still believe Acta is in Matt Chico's corner, and I know others in the front office were impressed by the results from Chico's new/old delivery (the higher leg kick) that added velocity. Could Chico beat out Bergmann? Hmmm. John Lannan is also a tough cut, but it's a bit easier considering he started 2007 in Class A, meaning that a jump to Class AAA Columbus in one year is huge. (Potential Columbus rotation: Chico, Lannan, Balester, Mock, Clippard - and then what to do with O'Connor?)

Prediction (5): John Patterson, Tim Redding, Odalis Perez, Jason Bergmann, Shawn Hill

Bullpen:
This has always been the most set group, and it's really going to come down to business decisions. We know Chad Cordero is the closer, Jon Rauch is the setup man, Luis Ayala the seventh-inning guy. There's no way this team can risk passing Joel Hanrahan through waivers, and the way he's pitched, he deserves to make the team regardless of whether he has options or not (he does not).

The lefty situation is interesting. Ray King signed a minor-league deal, and it's been assumed all along that he'll make the club (necessitating a 40-man roster move). But could the Nationals head north with all right-handers? I'm not going to put my money on it, but it's possible. Chris Schroder has continued to impress some in the organization. Saul Rivera appeared in 85 games last year and has a career ERA of 3.58. Hard to dismiss him. And then there's Jesus Colome, who Acta believes in and who made the team last year (over Rivera) because he is out of options. Schroder and Rivera both have options remaining.

That's eight guys for seven spots.

Prediction (7): Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala, Saul Rivera, Ray King, Jesus Colome, Joel Hanrahan

Like I said, just a guess, but an informed one. And there's still plenty of time for other things to happen - injuries, etc.

Mets come to HSCS today, but no Brian Schneider (hamstring). Perhaps we'll see Ryan Church.

I wrote this for the $.35/$.50-edition on former Met Lastings Milledge, who is a very interesting dude. Journal readers have already dissected Patterson's comments, I guess, but they're in the notebook as well. And Boz comes with an interesting take comparing some Nats to others at the same age - which may or may not mean anything.

Washington lineup today:
Cristian Guzman - 6
Bret Boone - 4
Ryan Zimmerman - DH
Dmitri Young - 3
Austin Kearns - 9
Elijah Dukes - 7
Aaron Boone - 5
Jesus Flores - 2
Justin Maxwell - 9 (over from minor league camp)

Look for a Lastings Milledge video on NJ later in the day. I'll have a chat with you on Wednesday, and Ryan Zimmerman has agreed to chat later in the week. We're working out the best time for him, but I'll keep you posted.

By Barry Svrluga  |  March 17, 2008; 9:27 AM ET
 
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