Nats Sign Clayton to Compete for Shortstop Job

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

The Washington Nationals yesterday signed 15-year veteran shortstop Royce Clayton to a minor league contract and told him he would have an opportunity to compete for the team's starting job this spring -- a clear signal to incumbent Cristian Guzman that, big contract or not, his place in the starting lineup is not guaranteed.

"We're not going to sit back and watch Cristian Guzman have another year like he did last year," General Manager Jim Bowden said, referring to Guzman's .219 batting average and 31 RBI in 2005. "This [signing] gives us a viable option to go to in the event we don't see improvement from Guzman."

The signing of Clayton headlined an active day for the Nationals, who also finalized a one-year, $600,000 deal with right-handed reliever Felix Rodriguez, added to their sizeable collection of outfielders by signing George Lombard to a minor league deal, and outrighted injured right-hander Francis Beltran to Class AAA New Orleans.

Rodriguez, 33, was once considered one of the top set-up men in the game, going 34-19 with a 2.90 ERA from 2000-04, mostly with the San Francisco Giants. However, a knee injury last season limited him to 34 appearances with the New York Yankees, and his ERA rose to 5.01.

In addition to his guaranteed salary, Rodriguez's contract could pay him an additional $650,000 in bonuses if he remains on the team's 40-man roster all season. The Nationals viewed it as a low-risk signing with potentially high rewards, if Rodriguez regains his old form.

"Whether or not he can come back and pitch like he did in San Francisco, I don't know that," Bowden said. "But I felt it was a worthwhile chance to take, based on his history and what our scouts saw in the Dominican Republic [where Rodriguez was playing winter ball]."

Rodriguez joins closer Chad Cordero, Luis Ayala, Gary Majewski and Jon Rauch as right-handers in the Nationals' bullpen, considered the strongest part of the team.

Still, it was the signing of Clayton that had the biggest impact on the Nationals' makeup, coming 13 days before their spring training camp opens with pitchers and catchers reporting.

Clayton, 36, hit .270 with two homers, 28 doubles and 44 RBI last year for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and while his .671 OPS (on base average plus slugging percentage) was modest, it was still almost 100 points better than Guzman's (.574). He is also considered a top defensive player, and his fielding percentage of .982 in 141 games last season was nine points better than Guzman's.

According to Bowden, Clayton agreed to accept a utility-infield role in the event he does not unseat Guzman, who has three years and $12.6 million remaining on his contract. The Nationals have until March 30 to decide whether to place Clayton on their roster or allow him to become a free agent.

Nationals Notes: Bowden said there was nothing new to report and no new talks scheduled between the team and free agent slugger Sammy Sosa, whom the Nationals have tried to lure with an offer of a non-guaranteed, minor league contract. Sosa apparently is willing to wait to see if another team offers a guaranteed deal.

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