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Nats Bank On Loaiza, Osuna

Club Finalizes Deals for Two Free Agent Pitchers

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page D09

The moves may not send ripples through baseball, and the names certainly aren't household for Washington fans not re-accustomed to poring over box scores and analyzing all those little numbers. But the Washington Nationals finalized two deals yesterday -- deals for free agent pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Antonio Osuna -- that could help take the burden off a pitching staff that was, at times, overwhelmed last season.

The Nationals officially announced that Loaiza, a 33-year-old right-hander who began last season with the Chicago White Sox before being traded to the New York Yankees, had signed a one-year deal, which is worth $2.9 million. Though the Nationals began the offseason seeking longer deals with higher-profile starters, General Manager Jim Bowden felt that Loaiza's history -- which includes a 21-win season in 2003 -- offers enough hope for success that a one-year contract could serve both parties well.

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"I think there's definitely risk involved," Bowden said. "But we know the worst-case scenario is that he just won 10 games and pitched 180 innings last year. If he had that 21-win season in 2004, he'd be getting the kind of money that we can't afford. We have to spend our dollars the best way we can. If we could afford [Curt] Schilling and [Roger] Clemens and Pedro [Martinez], they'd be on our team."

Loaiza, who is 100-89 with a 4.70 earned run average in 10 major league seasons, went 10-7 with a 5.70 ERA last year, though he was 9-5 and an all-star for the second straight season before the July 31 trade. He struggled upon his arrival in New York, where he had an 8.50 ERA, and was eventually sent to the bullpen. As much as anything, he needed a fresh start, he said yesterday.

"In 2003, I was just a different pitcher," Loaiza said by telephone. "Everything was working well. Last year, I was doing well and everything, but I think people study pitchers and get used to them. One of the things that [happened] when I went to New York, I tried to do too much instead of just throwing the ball. Me, going to Washington, there's going to be a lot of good stuff for me. I'm ready to go win every single game."

Loaiza said that after throwing a career-high 226 1/3 innings in 2003 -- when he was the starter for the American League all-star team, went 21-9, led the AL in strikeouts and was the runner-up for the Cy Young Award -- his arm tired last summer. He said being banished to the bullpen by the Yankees helped some, and he was more effective in the playoffs, when he allowed one run in 8 1/3 innings.

"I got my velocity back," Loaiza said. "I think they didn't have much confidence in me. [Yankees Manager] Joe Torre is a big veteran guy; he likes the guys he knows. I like New York, but I'm on a new team now, and whatever I have in me I want to take to Washington and perform like 2003."

Even a fraction of those results would please the Nationals. Of the 22 pitchers that appeared in at least one game for the team last year, only Livan Hernandez threw more than 136 innings. Loaiza has thrown at least 180 innings in four of the last five years.

Osuna, 32, signed a one-year, $800,000 deal with the team. His agent, Joseph Longo, said he had two other major league offers, but that Osuna preferred the Nationals in no small part because the team has three players whom Osuna knows well -- third baseman Vinny Castilla, reliever Luis Ayala and, now, Loaiza. All four players are from Mexico, which was important to Osuna.

"He's already tight with some of those players there, and I think that was a factor," Longo said.

Osuna, a reliever, went 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA with the San Diego Padres last year, when he made $750,000. He is 36-29 with a 3.50 ERA in a 10-year career with four teams.

Though neither Loaiza nor Osuna was the Nationals' top choice for either role -- Washington pursued such pitchers as Odalis Perez, Jaret Wright, Paul Wilson and Steve Kline -- they immediately make the Nationals' staff deeper.

Last season, when the team -- then the Montreal Expos -- struggled through a rash of injuries to pitchers such as Tony Armas Jr. and Tomo Ohka, Manager Frank Robinson found himself with little choice but to toss young pitchers into the lineup. Four pitchers made their big league debuts with the Expos last season, and the effect on the team was tangible. Montreal's bullpen began the year dropping 14 of its first 15 decisions before stabilizing.The team's starters finished the year 40-66 with a 4.53 ERA and averaged less than 5 2/3 innings per start, the lowest in the National League.

"We needed to be deeper," Bowden said. "We needed to be better prepared for injuries. We needed to be better prepared if you need to go to the minor leagues and make sure there are quality guys to go get. We think these moves help in that area."

Nationals Notes: Bowden said team officials held a conference call with infielder Barry Larkin this week. Larkin, 40, hasn't decided if he'll return for a 20th season in the majors. "If he does play, I think we have as good a chance as any at signing him," Bowden said. . . . To make room on the 40-man roster for Loaiza and Osuna, the Nationals designated outfielder Brandon Watson and righty Sun Woo Kim for assignment.

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