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Nationals Closing Deal With Free Agent Loaiza

Starting Pitcher Ohka Re-Signs With Club

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page D01

Who, exactly, is Esteban Loaiza? Is he the dominant right-handed starter who won 21 games and was the runner-up for the American League Cy Young award in 2003? Or is he the journeyman who has, that magical year notwithstanding, failed to win 12 games in a single season and was embarrassingly banished to the New York Yankees' bullpen last year?

The Washington Nationals are about to find out. Loaiza, a free agent, agreed to terms last night on a one-year, $2.9 million deal that includes incentives, a source with knowledge of the negotiations said on the condition of anonymity because Loaiza still needed to pass a physical before the deal was finalized. He was undergoing an MRI exam last night, delaying an announcement. Barring an unforeseen snag, Loaiza will be added to the Nationals' rotation today, where he will join righty Tomo Ohka, who yesterday became the last Washington player to avoid arbitration by signing a one-year, $2.75 million deal.

The Nationals hope starter Esteban Loaiza, who did not fare well with the Yankees last season, can anchor the rotation. The two sides are close to finalizing an agreement. (Bill Kostroun - AP)

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"It's looking positive," Loaiza's agent, John Boggs, said by telephone yesterday. "It ain't over till it's over."

The deal is down from the $4 million Loaiza made last season, when he split time between the Chicago White Sox and the Yankees. Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden declined to comment on the specifics of the contract when reached by phone yesterday.

The two sides are clearly trying to use each other for mutual benefit. Washington, which originally preferred free agent Odalis Perez over Loaiza, desperately needs a starter to throw at least 180 innings, something Loaiza has done in four of the past five seasons. And Loaiza, who crumbled with the Yankees -- posting an 8.50 ERA in 10 appearances -- needs an opportunity to rebuild his reputation after scouts said his velocity dropped, as did his confidence, in 2004. He will be a free agent again following the 2005 season, and should he turn things around in Washington, he could be in position to sign a more lucrative, multiyear deal.

"We feel like it could be a good fit," Boggs said.

Loaiza, now 33, went 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA for the White Sox in 2003, started the All-Star Game for the American League, and lost out to Toronto's Roy Halladay for the Cy Young. But in his nine other major league seasons with Pittsburgh, Texas, Toronto and Chicago, he is 79-80 with a 4.99 ERA.

Boggs contends Loaiza's struggles stemmed in part from a tired arm. "Getting traded to the Yankees, at that point, was probably the worst thing that could've happened to him," Boggs said. New York's rotation was stumbling in mid-summer, and Boggs said Loaiza, who had thrown a career-high 226 innings in 2003, was already worn down.

Boggs said evidence of that was Loaiza's performance after he had been banished to the bullpen, which allowed him to get some rest. In 8 1/3 innings in the American League playoffs, he allowed just one run on nine hits and three walks with five strikeouts. Loaiza will almost certainly join Ohka, Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas Jr. and either Zach Day, John Patterson or Jon Rauch in the Washington rotation.

The club moved closer yesterday to signing veteran reliever Antonio Osuna to a major league contract, a baseball source said. The Nationals initially pursued a minor league deal for Osuna, who went 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA in 31 appearances for San Diego last season. But he received interest from as many as eight teams, another source said, providing more competition.

Ohka, 28, earned more than $2.3 million last year, but suffered a freak injury in June when he was struck by a liner off the bat of Carlos Beltran, who was then with the Kansas City Royals. Ohka broke his right arm and missed 85 games, though he returned to make three starts in September. He finished 2004 at 3-7 with a 3.40 ERA. In his four-year career, he is 27-31 with a 3.75 ERA. He appeared to be headed for arbitration before his agent, Jim Masteralexis, and Bowden hammered out a deal late last night.

"It took a lot of work," Masteralexis said yesterday. "But we think this is a good deal for both sides. . . . Tomo's healthy. The bone is completely healed, and he's been doing rehab. He'll be ready."

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