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Nats Get Back to Baseball Business

Schneider Signed To One-Year Deal

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page D01

With a stadium-funding package approved on Tuesday and the political haggling over for now, the Washington Nationals proceeded yesterday with trying to solidify their baseball team. To that end, the Nationals avoided arbitration with one of the few players they have who is coveted by other teams, signing catcher Brian Schneider to a one-year, $2 million contract.

"This is a good outcome for both sides," interim general manager Jim Bowden said. "Arbitration's an ugly process. This deal made sense for the team and for the player."

The Nats' team store gets back to selling merchandise in the RFK Stadium parking lot. The team is working on its on-field product as well and hopes to reduce its list of four remaining arbitration-eligible players. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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Schneider, 28, developed into one of the top defensive catchers in baseball last season, throwing out nearly 48 percent of would-be base stealers, the second straight year in which he led all big league catchers. He started 125 games, making only two errors, and is a .252 career hitter. He made $350,000 in 2004.

"Both of the sides understood each other clearly," Schneider's agent, Ron Shapiro, said. "Jim understood the value of Brian to this team."

The Nationals have now avoided arbitration with three of their seven eligible players -- Schneider and right-handed relievers T.J. Tucker (one year, $657,000) and Joey Eischen (one year, $1.04 million). Bowden said he was making progress with most of the others -- first baseman Nick Johnson, first baseman-outfielder Brad Wilkerson (the team's player of the year in 2004) and starting pitcher Tony Armas Jr.

The one exception is starter Tomo Ohka, who missed 85 games -- about 17 starts -- after being struck in the right arm by a ball off the bat of Carlos Beltran, then with the Kansas City Royals, in June. Neither Ohka's agent, Jim Masteralexis, nor Bowden sounded as if Ohka would agree to terms.

"We're far apart in Ohka's negotiations," Bowden said. "It appears headed for arbitration."

Ohka went 3-7 with a 3.40 ERA last year, and made three starts in September after returning from the injury. Masteralexis pointed to those starts, in which Ohka pitched 13 innings, allowing eight earned runs, as evidence that his client is healthy. Ohka went 23-20 with a 3.68 ERA over the previous two years with the franchise, which was then the Montreal Expos.

"We feel comfortable going to arbitration," Masteralexis said. "We think Tomo's one of the best pitchers the Nationals have. Those three starts at the end of the year demonstrate that he's ready to pitch effectively."

Ohka, 28, made more than $2.3 million last season. Arbitration hearings will be scheduled during the first three weeks of February and the sides can come to terms any time prior to a hearing.

If healthy, Bowden believes Ohka could be an effective part of a rotation that, right now, includes Livan Hernandez, Armas and Zach Day. As he has since he took the job on Nov. 2, Bowden maintained yesterday that the team needs to add one more starter, preferably left-hander Odalis Perez. The two sides remain in contact but Bowden said he is not optimistic. One of Perez's representatives said yesterday that while the Seattle Mariners are still in the running, Perez maintains interest in Washington. A native of the Dominican Republic, Perez is close to former Cincinnati pitcher Jose Rijo, who says he has taken a coaching job with the Nationals and has been lobbying Perez on the team's behalf.

"With the situation with the team, they were focusing on trying to get other stuff done" involving the stadium legislation, said Fernando Cuza of the SFX Baseball agency, which represents Perez. "I expect everybody to get reengaged. . . . We're working with other teams, too. But I know it's a team he has interest in. He has a great relationship with Jose Rijo there. Now that everything seems to be on track, I would expect we'd reengage soon."

The Nationals are believed to have offered Perez a three-year, $18 million deal. Perez is also close with new Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre, who signed a five-year, $64 million deal with Seattle earlier this month.

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