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Nats Sign Schneider, Johnson; Arbitration With Soriano Seems Likely

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Washington Nationals signed catcher Brian Schneider to a four-year, $16 million contract yesterday and also came to terms with first baseman Nick Johnson on a one-year, $3.2 million deal, avoiding arbitration with both players. Newcomer Alfonso Soriano, however, remains another matter.

Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said yesterday that the club is likely headed to arbitration with Soriano, the all-star second baseman whom the Nationals acquired in a trade with Texas last month. Soriano, who made $7.5 million last year, submitted a proposed salary of $12 million, while the Nationals countered with an offer of $10 million. The two sides can negotiate up until a potential hearing, which would be scheduled between Feb. 1 and 20.

"There's kind of an agreement to disagree on where he falls," Bowden said.

Washington would like to put Soriano in the outfield if incumbent second baseman Jose Vidro is healthy, a move Soriano has said he will resist. Bowden described the situation as "sensitive" yesterday, but said he considers the position switch "a totally separate issue."

"We're going to attempt to do the contract before we continue to address the separate issue," Bowden said during a teleconference with reporters. "Obviously, it's a very sensitive issue with Alfonso. We respect him. . . . We don't want it to be a soap opera through the media. We're very sensitive to his feelings and his desires."

Reached by phone yesterday, Diego Bentz, Soriano's agent, said he isn't certain the sides are headed to arbitration.

"I don't know whether we're going to arbitration or not," Bentz said. "We're going to continue to negotiate."

The negotiations with Schneider, whom the Nationals consider to be one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, were far more fruitful. The 29-year-old has spent his entire career with the franchise. He hit .268 with 10 homers and 44 RBI last season, when he made $2 million. In parts of six major league seasons, Schneider is a .256 hitter with 37 homers and 185 RBI.

Schneider's value, though, comes defensively, and that is the reason the Nationals sought to lock him up with a long-term deal. He led all major league catchers in throwing out would-be base-stealers in both 2003 and '04.

"In all the years that I've been in baseball, I've never been with a young catcher that really understands how to call a game," Bowden said. "He really works, and he's a team player. He goes beyond the advance scouting reports and goes beyond the video. He studies and learns the game. He's a winner. There's not a lot of catchers that can shut down the running game."

The structure of Schneider's contract, which avoids two more offseasons in which he would have been eligible for arbitration and his first two years of free agency, leaves the new owners of the franchise, who have not yet been named by Major League Baseball, to pay the bulk of his salary. He will earn $2.7 million this season, $3.5 million in 2007 and $4.9 million in both 2008 and 2009. He would make an additional $500,000 should he be traded, a bonus charged to the team that acquires him.

Schneider, who described himself as "super-ecstatic," is now signed longer than any Nationals player. Vidro is signed through 2008.

"There's no place I'd rather be for the next four years," Schneider said. "I love the area. I have family in the area. It's just good security for me and my family."

The Nationals took a more traditional approach with Johnson, the talented 27-year-old who has a history of injuries. Last year, Johnson spent time on the disabled list with a bruised right heel, the sixth straight year he missed time because of injuries. Therefore, his contract is structured in a pay-for-play fashion. Johnson will receive bonuses for games played or plate appearances, beginning with 130 games or 510 plate appearances. Should he play in 150 games or make 590 plate appearances, he would earn an extra $250,000.

Last year, Johnson, a superb fielder, hit a career-best .289 with 15 homers and 74 RBI. He has never played in more than the 131 games or posted more than the 547 plate appearances he had last season.

In other news, the Nationals don't appear to be any closer to a deal with free agent slugger Sammy Sosa, late of the Baltimore Orioles. They continue to evaluate whether it would be worth bringing Sosa into spring training, but appear unwilling to guarantee him any money.

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