By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2005
The Washington Nationals' offseason quest for starting pitching began with much fanfare, highlighted by a four-year, $40 million offer to former Florida Marlin A.J. Burnett that fell well short of the asking price, and continuing with a similar offer to Kevin Millwood, the American League's ERA champ last year with Cleveland.
The quest all but ended yesterday with a whimper. Outbid for players such as Burnett and Millwood, who signed deals worth at least $55 million over five years, the Nationals -- still owned by Major League Baseball and shrouded in uncertainty -- signed right-handers Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas Jr. to more economical one-year deals.
Ortiz and Armas, each looking to revitalize a once-promising career, will battle for spots in Washington's rotation, one which will head to spring training in February with only Livan Hernandez and John Patterson as proven commodities.
"Obviously the financial market blew up," General Manager Jim Bowden said yesterday. "It made it very, very difficult to get pitching, especially with our [$60 million] budget. We're always going to be out there looking for number one or number two starters, which these moves don't satisfy. But this is how you respond with a budget like ours; you sign low-risk, high-reward guys."
Ortiz, who will turn 33 in March, signed for $2.5 million. Armas, who has spent his entire career with the Washington-Montreal franchise, will earn $2.1 million, though he could earn more depending on how many innings he pitches. The pair will be part of a group that will have to replace Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco, who combined to go 17-14 with a 3.27 ERA in 305 1/3 innings but signed elsewhere as free agents.
The signings also come against the backdrop of the Nationals' most significant offseason move, the trade with Texas for four-time all-star Alfonso Soriano. Though Soriano could provide an offensive force unlike any the Nationals had last season, he met the news that he would likely have to move from second base to the outfield with outright disdain, and has not retreated from those remarks.
Soriano's defiance triggered calls from several interested teams who wondered if the Nationals might be willing to trade Soriano, including Boston, according to a source familiar with the discussions. Nationals front-office executives, however, for now appear unwilling to part with Soriano unless they are bowled over with an offer that includes either a front-line starting pitcher, such as the Red Sox' Josh Beckett, or several younger, front-line pitching prospects. One source familiar with Washington's discussions over the last several weeks said, "There's nothing close enough to take seriously right now," but thought the Nationals would remain open to talks about trades for pitching.
Ortiz went 9-11 with a 5.36 ERA for the Cincinnati Reds last year, when he made $3.55 million. He became a free agent last week when the Reds didn't tender him a contract.
Ortiz's best days came with Anaheim, which he helped pitch to the World Series title in 2002, when he went 15-9 with a 3.77 ERA, by far the best of his seven major league seasons. He lost his spot in the Angels' rotation in 2004, but started 30 games and threw 171 1/3 innings for the Reds last year. He was only slightly affected by Cincinnati's notoriously hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park, posting a 5.63 ERA at home and a 5.08 ERA on the road.
Bowden said he believes pitching coach Randy St. Claire and Jose Rijo, one of Bowden's special assistants, can work with Ortiz to produce results comparable to those of Carrasco. St. Claire helped Carrasco, who was out of the majors in 2004, to a stellar 2005 by teaching him a change-up.
That Armas ended up back with Washington would have been considered a surprise in September, when he made the last of his 19 starts before ending his season with arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder. Armas has spent parts of the last three seasons on the disabled list, beginning with rotator cuff surgery in 2003.
Armas went 7-7 with a 4.97 ERA in 2005, and is 39-48 with a 4.32 ERA in parts of seven major league seasons. Bowden said the medical reports on Armas's shoulder were "tremendous."
"He has as much up-side as any pitcher on the free agent market -- when he's healthy, which we haven't seen," Bowden said.
The model for both Ortiz and Armas, Bowden said, is Loaiza, who signed a one-year, $2.9-million deal with Washington, then parlayed his 12-10 season into a three-year deal with Oakland worth more than $21 million.
Each of the Nationals' other potential starters carries with him significant question marks as well. Ryan Drese, who went 3-6 with a 4.98 ERA after being acquired off waivers by Washington in June, was Texas's Opening Day starter in 2005, but is coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Fellow right-hander Brian Lawrence, acquired in a November trade with San Diego for third baseman Vinny Castilla, went 7-15 with a 4.83 ERA while making 14 of his starts at the Padres' Petco Park, considered an advantage for pitchers. Jon Rauch pitched only 30 major league innings last season after having surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder, and has made only 34 starts in his three major league seasons.
"We've got seven quality guys," Bowden said. "We're going to spring training with enough guys who have won before and pitched a lot of innings before. Now, they just have to do it."