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Nationals Acquire Fourth New Player

Catcher Bennett Agrees to One-Year Deal

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2004; Page D01

By Jim Bowden's own characterization, MLB's offseason trade and free agent market is "moving at a turtle's pace." But the Washington Nationals' general manager is doing what he can to shake that up, yesterday adding the team's fourth new player -- backup catcher Gary Bennett -- while continuing to pursue the club's remaining urgent need, starting pitching.

Bennett, a 32-year-old veteran who made his major league debut in 1995 and played last season with the Milwaukee Brewers, agreed to terms on a one-year contract that will pay him $750,000, according to a baseball source. After hitting .224 with three home runs and 20 RBI for the Brewers, he'll back up one of the Nats' most promising players, catcher Brian Schneider. Bennett, an early target of assistant general manager Tony Siegle, played in at least 75 games in each of the past three years with Milwaukee, San Diego and Colorado.

Gary Bennett, right, known for handling pitching staffs well, agreed to a one-year, $750,000 deal to back up Nationals catcher Brian Schneider. (Darren Hauck -- AP)

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"This is a veteran guy, someone who is well-respected and can handle a pitching staff real well," Bowden said. "We needed someone like that."

Of the seven free agents who have changed teams this offseason, the Nats have signed three -- Bennett, shortstop Cristian Guzman and third baseman Vinny Castilla. Throw in a trade for right fielder Jose Guillen and Washington has been as active as anyone.

Adding a catcher was essential -- the club declined the option on former backup Einar Diaz -- and will allow Bowden to move on to the pursuit of pitching. He must secure depth for a starting rotation that consists of Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas Jr., Tomo Ohka and Zach Day, a group that has been beset by injuries. Of those four, only Hernandez -- who led the National League with 255 innings pitched -- threw more than 120 innings in 2004.

Though Bowden wouldn't comment on which players he is pursuing, the Nats are believed to have held conversations with the representatives for at least four free agent starters -- Jaret Wright and Russ Ortiz of the Atlanta Braves, Odalis Perez of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Paul Wilson of the Cincinnati Reds -- within the last several days.

Bowden said the Nats must wait until some of the top free agent pitchers, such as Pedro Martinez and Carl Pavano, sign deals so the market is set for the lower tier. He said the deal right-hander Kris Benson signed with the New York Mets -- three years, $22.5 million, after he went 12-12 with a 4.31 ERA -- might at least temporarily skew that market.

"That gave more confidence to pitchers with better numbers," Bowden said. "They now have confidence that they'll get that kind of deal. But I think Benson was an aberration. But if they're thinking, 'Hey, I've got better numbers. I should get a better deal,' and there's no deal out there like that, it makes the process take longer."

Wright went 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA -- best among Atlanta's regular starters -- during a season in which he put behind him a history of arm troubles, including two shoulder surgeries. After making just 22 starts from 2000 to '03, Wright was a bargain for the Braves at $850,000 in 2004, but is believed to be seeking a multiyear deal worth significantly more money.

Ortiz went 15-9 with a 4.13 ERA last season, when he made $6.2 million. After winning 36 games in two years with Atlanta, he, too, will be seeking a raise. Considering the Nationals' budget constraints -- the team almost certainly will be allowed to spend around $50 million on players' salaries -- Ortiz might be the least likely of the four targets to play in Washington.

Wilson, the first player taken in the 1994 draft, has been slowed by three surgeries -- two on his shoulder, one on his elbow. When Bowden was the general manager of the Reds, he signed Wilson to a two-year, $4 million deal. Just 39-53 in his career, Wilson went 11-6 with a 4.36 ERA in 2004.

Perez almost certainly won't return to the Dodgers, for whom he went 7-6 with a 3.25 ERA in 31 starts last season, when he made $5 million.

"The timing on these things isn't important," Bowden said. "We could do something today or the day before spring training opens -- it doesn't matter. We just need to make sure we get more pitching."

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