VIERA, Fla. -- On Dec. 8, about three weeks after being named manager of the Nationals, Manny Acta called Ryan Church and informed him that that he would be the starting left fielder entering Spring Training.

It was the boost of confidence Church needed. It told Church that someone in the organization believed in him.

"He's going to stick to his word," Church said. "He's going to give me plenty of opportunity to show what I have."

At the same time, Acta acknowledged that 2007 is a make-or-break-season for Church. While he has put up nice numbers on a limited basis (a combined .282 with 19 home runs, 76 RBIs in two years), Church has never shown that he can play a full season without getting hurt or going back to the Minor Leagues.

Although Church is being given every opportunity to win the job, Kory Casto, Alex Escobar and Chris Snelling will get a lot of playing time this spring to show that they should be the regular left fielder.

Casto was the Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year the past two years. Escobar showed glimpses of the talent that Mets general manager Omar Minaya and Washington general manager Jim Bowden have bragged about over the years. And Snelling, who was acquired in the Jose Vidro trade in the offseason, is trying to avoid another knee injury.

"The decision is up to the team," Snelling said. "All I can do is do whatever I can to help the team win. I'll just focus on that. Everything else will take care of itself.

The leading candidate
Most of the winter, all Church read was negative stories about him or that he was going to be traded.

There were reports the Nationals were angry with him, because he didn't go to the Mexican League to learn how to hit breaking balls. Church would later say there was a misunderstanding, saying that the Mexican team already had an outfielder on its roster.

It also didn't help that agent Jeff Borris announced that Church had nothing more to prove by going to Mexico.

For most of the winter, there were the rumors that Church would be traded before Opening Day. According to reports, the Pirates and Tigers had the most interest, but a deal never came close.

Instead of reading about himself, Church went to Arizona to work on his eye coordination with visualization specialist Bill Harrison and reviewed the 2006 season in his mind. Church was sent down twice for lack of production, and most people in the organization believed that his head was not in the game. To his credit, Church was one player on the 2006 roster who was never afraid to admit that he messed up on the field.

"I'm coming in with a better attitude," Church said. "I think a lot of it had to do [with my brain]. I reflected on last year and looked back how I came to prepare myself during Spring Training, and how I went about my business.

"This year is different. I'm going to go at it hard. The visual part is going to help me, but having Manny call me gave me that confidence. That's all I can ask for -- that alone put that motivation in my head. I know I can hit. It's just a matter of me going out there and doing it every day."

The kid from Portland
Acta is a straight shooter and he was no different when he pulled Casto to the side recently and said, "You are not going to make this team on the bench. If you make this team, it will be a starting spot."

While there is a good chance he will start the season in the Minor Leagues, Casto feels comfortable around Acta because of his no-nonsense style.

"Just the way he goes about his business, he's professional," Casto said. "And being able to tell somebody about my future, especially when there are four guys competing for a spot, I have an idea what's going on. I can focus more on the baseball part."

The Nationals' farm system was dry in 2005 and '06, but there was a diamond hidden in the Minor Leagues. It found out it had a patient hitter and versatile player in Casto. In the past two years, he has walked 165 times in 989 at-bats.

Casto was drafted in the third round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft as a corner outfielder, but he was quickly switched to third base by the next season. In fact, Casto will play most of his Spring Training games at third. With four left fielders on the 40-man roster, Casto is the one who has to change positions in order for get plenty of at-bats.

"It seems like a friendly competition -- Snelling, Church and Escobar -- all guys who I know and like," Casto said. "It's one of those things where everybody is going out there and showing everybody what they can do. It doesn't seem we are competing against each other."

Can they ever stay healthy?
Escobar and Snelling are lockered next to each other at Space Coast Stadium, and they both have something in common. They have not been healthy for a full season.

When he is working out, Snelling is wearing a left knee brace, which -- as he put it -- feels like he is wearing a catcher's shin guard. It makes him run slower. Seven surgeries on the same knee can make you wear that knee brace.

Escobar has an ice pack on his right shoulder. He is still recovering from a separated shoulder, which he hurt against the Braves in August. Acta announced recently that Escobar would be a designated hitter until March 15. The shoulder injury is one of many that has curtailed Escobar's career in the past five years.

"I feel pretty good as long as my name is in the lineup," Escobar said. "It's a good feeling for me. Hopefully, it can work out faster. Right now, I'm taking it a day at a time. I'm looking forward to being where I want to be on the 15th."

Despite their injuries, Escobar and Snelling are talented commodities. When he is healthy, Escobar is a dangerous hitter. In 33 games in 2006, Escobar went 31-for-87 (.356) with four home runs and 18 RBIs. So talented is Escobar that he hit a home run against the Cubs, even though he was suffering from a strained hamstring injury.

Snelling was highly touted in the Mariners organization. He was often compared to Lenny Dykstra because of his toughness on the field.

"The way I look at it, I take a lot of pride in wearing the uniform," Snelling said. "One day my goal is to beat out a ground ball back to the pitcher. I try to beat every ball out. I just love playing the game hard. If I don't, it's not fun for me."

After signing with the Mariners in 1999, Snelling was hit by the injury bug in a big way. He originally hurt the knee in 2002, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament while trying to stop at third base.

The most games he played in one season was in 2001. Snelling played in 114 games, and he hit .336 with seven home runs and 73 RBIs for Class A San Bernardino.

Snelling is realistic coming into Spring Training. He knows everybody will question the health of his knee.

"The question about the knee is justifiable," Snelling said. "Anybody who has seven surgeries, you are obviously going to say, 'Wow, that's a lot.' I've done everything I can to get healthy. I'm healthy now. It probably feels the best it has felt since 2002."

For Escobar and Snelling, they hope to feel good for all of 2007.