Nationals Assemble Well-Traveled Team

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 22 -- The trickle of familiar names and vaguely familiar faces that has been arriving on a daily basis at the Washington Nationals' spring camp became a stream on Wednesday, the day before the official reporting date for position players. There was Michael Tucker, the veteran outfielder, now with his sixth organization in five years. There was Daryle Ward, first baseman, fourth organization in four years. Thursday is expected to bring outfielder Ruben Mateo, last seen in the majors in 2004; this is his fourth organization in three years.

One veteran Nationals player, surveying the scene Wednesday, said it brought to mind a phrase. "Lightning in a bottle," the player said. "That's what it looks like we're trying to do here: Lightning in a bottle."

Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden spent much of the winter signing every once-famous castoff, journeyman and retread he could get his hands on -- always on the cheap, often with little more than an offer of a non-guaranteed, minor league deal.

As always, Bowden's predilection for two types of players -- "tools" players (those whom scouts grade highly in various athletic categories) and former Cincinnati Reds -- is in full effect this spring. Bowden's Cincinnati connections (he was general manager there from 1992 to 2003) led him this winter to former Reds such as Tucker, Mateo and infielder Damian Jackson. Tucker and Jackson both have solid chances to make the team.

Tools? Suffice it to say that if the Nationals fail to construct a solid bench out of their collection of reclamation projects, perhaps they could field an excellent football team. Outfielder Kenny Kelly was once the starting quarterback for the University of Miami. Outfielder Tyrell Godwin was a running back and kick returner for the University of North Carolina. Outfielder George Lombard was a Parade all-American wide receiver who turned down a scholarship to Georgia, choosing baseball instead.

The Nationals say their prolific, bottom-feeding approach to player acquisitions this winter -- which also netted them veteran shortstop Royce Clayton, reliever Kevin Gryboski and infielder Marlon Anderson -- was the best way for a small- to mid-revenue team to try to compete in this marketplace.

"When you start looking at what they've had to spend and how they've done [on the field] compared to other teams with similar payrolls -- what [the organization] has done here the last four or five years has been remarkable," Bowden said.

Though finances are certainly part of it, they are not the only part. Bowden also clearly believes in his ability to uncover the hidden gem -- the forgotten or disgraced former star who might still have one big year left in him.

That belief is what fueled Bowden's pursuit of former slugger Sammy Sosa, which apparently went on longer than previously believed -- but which Bowden said Wednesday night was officially, completely dead.

"The Sammy Sosa issue is now behind us," Bowden said, echoing similar words he said a week ago -- words that, at the time, were premature, it now appears.

A team source revealed Wednesday that the team's highest offer to Sosa was not $500,000, as previously reported, but $1 million. Still, the source said Sosa was more concerned with the non-guaranteed nature of the offer--the team could have cut him by March 15 without paying him -- than by the financial terms.

It appears, however, that Sosa considered the Nationals' $1 million offer. "I don't think the money has ever been the issue with Sammy," Bowden said. "His decision has been whether he wants to play or not."

All along, Bowden has played down his interest in Sosa, saying he viewed Sosa as little more than an outfield insurance policy. But the dreamer in him admits there was another thought behind it, a thought that can be summed up in four words: Lightning in a bottle.

"I took Ron Gant and Eric Davis [in Cincinnati] when everyone thought they were done," Bowden said, "and they both won comeback player of the year. Who's to say it couldn't happen again?"

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