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BE FRUTO AND MULTIPLY

[February 25th] -- It's begun already. Coaches, general mangers - heck, even team presidents - are doing it. "Man," they begin, "I know it's early, but so-and-so looks like they can make an impact for us this year." Perhaps they are talking about a veteran, perhaps a rookie. It doesn't matter; the mantra is the same.


"I know we haven't played a game yet, but man ...."


Look, I'm happy that Emilano Fruto is impressing the heck out of everyone and that his stuff is so good that he might end up in the Nationals' rotation one day. Sure, he looks good against batters who haven't picked up a bat in six months, but it's hard to forget his 5.50 ERA last year.


Spring Training camps are littered with the bodies of players who looked good early. Sparky Anderson once anointed a young third baseman who burned up the Grapefruit League one spring as the "best baseball player I have ever seen." That I can't remember that guy's name today is a testament to his failure. The Washington Senators started the 1968 season with a second baseman named Frank Coggins based primarily on his great spring. He batted .175 in 183 at-bats before shuffling off to Buffalo, the Senators 'AAA' affiliate, never to be heard from again. The Senators plucked veteran 3rd baseman Joe Foy off the Met's roster and gave him a tryout in the spring of 1971. He didn't just impress, he blew everyone away. Even his foul balls sounded like rocket-shots. He started the first quarter of the season for the Senators, batting .234 with a .660 OPS. He was released in June.


I hope that Emilano Fruto is the real deal, I really do. The Nationals need him, and dozens more just like him. But looking good on a back-diamond pitchers mound doesn't amount to much. Fruto's problem wasn't his 'stuff' last year; it was his control. The 23-year old struck out 34 batters in just 36 innings. That's impressive. But he also averaged six walks per 9 innings pitched, and that just isn't going to cut it at the major league level. Standing behind him, his electric stuff is obvious. But how's his control? Is he catching the paint for a strike or is he still missing the strike zone? There's no one there to say one way or the other.


Spring Training isn't about making snap decisions based on three innings pitched here, or a half-dozen at-bats there. Fruto could look like Roger Clemens this spring and still blow chunks come April. Conversely, Shawn Hill could end the spring with a double-digit ERA and win a dozen games in 2007. You just never know, you know?


On Being Ronnie Belliard: The more I think about it, the less I believe that Ronnie Belliard is going to be part of the Nationals' bench this year. Without question, he is the team's best second baseman right now. Felipe Lopez is the team's best shortstop right now. What else is there to consider? That said, Jim Bowden is married to Cristian Guzman, or at least to his contract. He has no trade value. Belliard a bench jockey? No way. If Guzman and Lopez are to be the Nationals' Tinkers to Evers, then Belliard needs to keep his bags packed. Maybe April. Maybe May. It'll happen.


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