With the possible exception of Kaz Matsui, I’m not sure there was a more expendale (or untradeable) everyday player in the National League than Nationals SS Cristian Guzman. The slimmer “Guzie”, as the 2 or 3 people he’s still on speaking terms with like to call him, is strangely optimistic heading into the 2006 campaign writes the Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin.
“The people are going to like the new Guzie,” he said. “I’ve got a little surprise for them.”
What the poets say about spring training, that it symbolizes rebirth and a cleansing of sins, holds a special poignancy for Guzman, whose 2005 season was one big, messy pile of unproductive at-bats, embarrassing statistics and armchair psychoanalysis from the media, fans and team officials.
He batted just .219, and his OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of .574 would have been last in the majors by 80 points — among players who had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title — had he not missed two weeks in July with a strained hamstring. Only a strong finish (he batted .325 in the season’s final month) kept his season from becoming one of historic futility.
“You know when you struggle the whole year, you have to be strong to be happy every day,” he said. “When you do nothing for your teammates [to help win games], you get a little bit down. But [now] I smile all the time.”
If nothing else, Guzman looks better and sees better this spring. At the team’s urging, he dropped eight pounds over the winter in his native Dominican Republic, and he underwent laser eye surgery shortly after the season ended in October, which has improved his vision even beyond what contact lenses were doing for him.
Still, the Nationals are at least as concerned about his mental state as his physical state. Less than two weeks before spring training began, the team signed Royce Clayton to a minor league contract, telling the veteran shortstop — and the media — that Guzman’s job is there for the stealing.
“We’re not going to sit back,” General Manager Jim Bowden said at the time, “and watch Cristian Guzman have another year like he did last year.”
Though it was a fairly transparent ploy to jolt Guzman into a sense of urgency — the fact he is owed another $12.6 million over the next three years makes him impossible to trade and nearly as impossible to bench — Guzman on Tuesday shrugged off a question about Clayton.
“It’s okay for me,” he said. “Everybody needs a job. That’s not working for me. They can bring Derek Jeter. It’s the new Guzie right now.”