Nationals Sign Tucker, Retain Ayala

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Washington Nationals added another veteran to their bench by signing outfielder Michael Tucker to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal yesterday, the same day they avoided arbitration with reliever Luis Ayala by agreeing to a two-year, $2.2 million deal.

Tucker, a 34-year-old veteran of 11 major league seasons with six teams, could be a candidate for the final outfield spot. He is a .257 career hitter who failed to reach double figures in home runs for the first time in 10 years in 2005, when he hit .239 and slugged a career-low .362 in 126 games with the San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies. He will make $800,000 if he makes the team, and he would join Robert Fick , Marlon Anderson and Damian Jackson as new additions to a completely overhauled bench.

"He'd be another improvement to that group," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

The battle for the Nationals' final outfield spot likely comes down to Tucker and rookie Brandon Watson . If Watson doesn't make the team after an impressive 2005 season with Class AAA New Orleans, Ryan Church will likely be the starting center fielder. The Nationals' other outfielders are Jose Guillen , Marlon Byrd and erstwhile second baseman Alfonso Soriano , acquired in a trade last month.

The deal with Ayala means the slender right-hander will bypass arbitration next offseason and leaves the Nationals with four more arbitration-eligible players. Ayala, who will turn 28 on Thursday, went 8-7 with a 2.66 ERA in 68 appearances last season, when he earned $363,000. He will make $900,000 in 2006 and $1.3 million in 2007.

"He's thrilled," said agent Joseph Longo . "He comes from a tough part of Mexico, and to get a two-year deal, he was almost in tears."

In three major league seasons, Ayala has never posted an ERA higher than 3.00, and has gained respect from coaches and teammates because he likes to pitch frequently.

That tendency, however, may have caused Ayala problems late in the 2005 season. For four months, he was among the National League leaders in appearances. But his elbow began bothering him, and he made only two appearances after Aug. 21 because of a bone spur. He had surgery to shave the spur at the end of the season.

"He's completely healthy and we like his workload," Bowden said. "He's an important part of that bullpen."

Soriano, first baseman Nick Johnson , catcher Brian Schneider and Byrd are the Nationals eligible for arbitration.

"When it's January, when it's this late, you have to worry a bit," Bowden said. "But we're going to keep working at it."

-- Barry Svrluga

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