Nationals Make Offers To Free Agent Pitchers

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

With the offseason's marquee free agents bypassing the Washington Nationals and their swirl of political controversy, General Manager Jim Bowden was already left pursuing less accomplished players to fill the club's significant gap in starting pitching. Yesterday, when a crop of additional players became free agents after their former clubs didn't offer them contracts, the pool of affordable also-rans expanded, as did the Nationals' search.

Washington showed interest in free agent right-handers Ramon Ortiz, Josh Fogg, Dewon Brazelton and Ryan Franklin by making contract offers yesterday, Bowden said by e-mail. He was trying to get in touch with the agent for Wade Miller as well in hopes of doing the same.

None of those players posted a winning record in 2005, and all were deemed expendable by their former teams, who would have faced arbitration hearings or contract negotiations with them. They are now added to the Nationals' pursuit of starters, one which already includes negotiations with free agents Brett Tomko and Shawn Estes -- discussions that have been ongoing for weeks -- as well as Joe Mays.

The wide net cast over a group of players who were largely unsuccessful last season highlights the Nationals' predicament. Though they have made offers to such high-profile free agents as A.J. Burnett and Kevin Millwood, most players are reluctant to sign long-term deals with Washington because the team doesn't have a new owner or a final deal with the District on a new stadium.

So here's the sampling. Ortiz won 44 games for the Angels from 2001 to '03, but was 9-11 with a 5.36 ERA for Cincinnati last season. Fogg was once one of the Pirates' most promising starters, but he suffered the first losing season of his career (6-11, 5.05).

And those appear to be the most stable choices. Franklin not only struggled (8-15, 5.10 ERA) for the Mariners, but was suspended for 10 days for violating baseball's steroid policy. Brazelton went 1-8 with a 7.61 ERA for Tampa Bay, which sent him to the minors only to have him disappear for three weeks because he didn't want to accept the assignment. Miller went just 4-4 with a 4.95 ERA and managed only 91 innings for Boston because of shoulder problems.

But with only three healthy members of their rotation -- Livan Hernandez, John Patterson and newly acquired Brian Lawrence -- the Nationals are considering even unpalatable options. They moved closer to re-signing right-hander Tony Armas Jr. to an incentive-laden contract. Armas went 7-7 with a career-worst 4.97 ERA last year, and he has pitched only 204 1/3 innings over the last three seasons because of injuries.

The Nationals also offered arbitration to catcher Brian Schneider, first baseman Nick Johnson, reliever Luis Ayala, infielder Jamey Carroll and outfielder Marlon Byrd. Bowden said the club could seek to sign one or more of them to multiyear contracts.

The club declined to offer contracts to four arbitration-eligible players: second baseman Junior Spivey, infielder Rick Short, outfielder Alex Escobar and right-hander T.J. Tucker -- and they became free agents. The club signed Escobar and Tucker to minor league deals, and sold Short -- a career minor leaguer who debuted as a 32-year-old rookie with Washington -- to Tohoku Rakuten of Japan's Pacific League.

Spivey's departure was expected. The Nationals have five capable second basemen (Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro, Carroll, Damian Jackson and Marlon Anderson). Spivey made $2.2 million last season and would have received a raise in arbitration. His loss leaves Washington with nothing in return for the trade of right-hander Tomo Ohka to Milwaukee. Tucker made only 13 appearances before being lost to right elbow surgery in June, and he won't be ready for spring training. Escobar sat out the season because of injuries.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company