Lopez, Young starting '08 on bench
Infield of Johnson, Guzman, Belliard set by Acta
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Manager Manny Acta made two decisions this weekend that didn't surprise anyone. Nick Johnson will start at first base, and shortstop Cristian Guzman and Ronnie Belliard will be the double-play combination.
The moves mean that first baseman Dmitri Young and infielder Felipe Lopez will start the season on the bench. Both were informed by Acta after batting practice on Friday.
Acta said that Johnson won the job because he is back to being the player he was in 2006, when he had his best season. That year, Johnson hit .290 with 23 home runs and a .428 on-base percentage before breaking his leg on Sept. 23.
Johnson missed the entire 2007 season while he recovered, but during Spring Training, he showed that he is 100 percent, sliding into bases and fielding his position without any problems.
Entering Saturday's exhibition game against the Orioles, Johnson outplayed Young by a wide margin except for hitting. The team grew concerned about Young because he had difficulty losing weight, though diabetes is a major reason for that situation, and Young also is considered a liability at first base.
"We feel that Nick Johnson is back to where he was years ago. We saw it in camp, and we went with it," Acta said. "We had a very good meeting with Dmitri Young. It wasn't easy, because you are telling a guy who was the [2007 NL] Comeback Player of the Year that he was going to be on the bench. He understood. None of these guys are going to be buried on the bench. It's a long season. They are going to have a chance to play, too."
Young, who was stoic when he faced the media on Saturday, said that he was not happy about the decision and is going to take his reserve role one day at a time. He acknowledged that has to learn how to hit off the bench, but he'll be doing so from hitting coach Lenny Harris, who is considered among the best pinch-hitters of all time.
"At the same time, I'm happy for Nick to be able to able to come back from his injury," Young said. "He worked his tail off to get back to his starting position. I'm frustrated, but at the same time, it's not going to ruin my day.
"It's a new role. I have never done it. I've always been a starter. When I pinched it, it was usually when I had a day off.
Lopez took the news well and has softened his stance, having previously said that he would not accept a role on the bench. Acta said that Lopez, who hit .230 with two home runs during the spring, did nothing to take away jobs away from Guzman and Belliard, who hit .274 and .346, respectively.
"I feel happy for both those guys," Lopez said. "Like I said before, I have nothing against them. I just want to win. If [Acta] needs me to go in there and pinch-hit, I'll be ready. It's a long season. I know my moment is going to come. I'm going to get ready to play. I still want to play. It's something that I can't control, but I know I'm going to get my shot."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.