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Nats Pursue O. Perez, but Money Is a Factor

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page D02

ANAHEIM, Calif., Dec. 10 -- The Washington Nationals made what interim general manager Jim Bowden described as a last-ditch effort to sign free agent left-hander Odalis Perez late Friday night. But both Bowden and Perez acknowledged that while the fit works in theory -- the Nationals desperately need another starter, and Perez likes the idea of pitching in Washington -- Perez's market value might be too much.

"Dollar-wise, [I'm] just not really optimistic that he'll be able to fall into a range that we can make work," Bowden said during the first day of baseball's winter meetings here. "It's strictly financial. . . . I think there's a fit as far as the organization and the interest, but dollar-wise, it's a very difficult market right now."

Starter Odalis Perez is one of the players Jim Bowden would like to add for the Nationals. (Mark J. Terrill - AP)

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In a telephone interview from his home in the Dominican Republic, Perez acknowledged the same potential problem. Perez, who made $5 million last year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, will command more than that, particularly given that pitchers such as Kris Benson and Russ Ortiz have agreed to deals worth more than $7 million annually, and Jaret Wright, another former Nats' target, is close to signing with the New York Yankees for nearly that much.

"Whether I play in Los Angeles or Washington or somewhere else, I want to play baseball, and it will be based on business," Perez said Friday afternoon.

Of Washington's $50 million payroll budget, about $6 million remains for next year. Bowden stressed, however, that he could free up more money if the club declines to offer arbitration to any of its eligible players. Pitchers Tomo Ohka or Tony Armas Jr., who made $2.3 and $2.1 million, respectively, could be candidates.

Perez, who went 7-6 with a 3.25 earned run average in 31 starts for Los Angeles in 2004, also has interest from the Texas Rangers and will be pursued by the New York Mets if they can't land Pedro Martinez. Perez could fall close to the Benson-Wright price range.

Because of Bowden's pessimism about Perez, he spent part of Friday working on other deals. A trade for Colorado's Shawn Chacon remains a possibility, and a baseball source said the Nationals were moving in on righty Esteban Loaiza, whose 21-win season in 2003 with the Chicago White Sox seems eons ago. Loaiza was traded to the Yankees in midseason, but was relegated to the bullpen and had an 8.50 ERA in 10 appearances with New York. Bowden, though, wants someone who can throw 180 innings, and Loaiza has topped 190 innings in four of the past five years.

Still, the push for Perez was more pressing. Also involved in the Nationals' meeting with Perez's representatives was former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jose Rijo, still a well-known personality in the Dominican Republic. Rijo said he and Perez met at a Santo Domingo cigar bar Rijo owns on Wednesday night.

"He wants to come here," Rijo said. "I think he's excited about it. He told me, 'Talk to Jim Bowden. I want to play for you guys.' "

Rijo was one of six candidates Bowden interviewed for coaching jobs Friday afternoon. Bowden said he had hired former major league manager Bob Boone as a special assistant to the general manager.

As expected, the Nationals announced they will not bring back roving coach Claude Raymond, which means they can make three hires. Rijo said he was excited about the possibility of being a bullpen coach, and said, "I'm going to do it."

Bowden also met with Jose Cardenal, who had a coaching job in Cincinnati when Bowden was the GM there and could be attractive because he has the reputation of being able to work with Jose Guillen, the talented but erratic right fielder Washington acquired last month.

Also, Bowden will meet Saturday with the agent for veteran shortstop Barry Larkin, who he would like to sign as a backup, though Larkin is still looking for a starting job.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company