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Nationals Mull Pitching Options

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 26 -- The Washington Nationals' search for starting pitching help, in the wake of Brian Lawrence's potentially season-ending shoulder surgery Sunday, has led them away from the well-picked-over free agent market, at least for now, as team officials shift their focus to a trade market that might be almost as barren. And in the meantime, Manager Frank Robinson and his staff are expanding their view of the collection of pitchers already in camp.

Asked if he would be comfortable breaking camp in five weeks with the collection of starting pitchers he has now, Robinson said: "I'd be comfortable. Would I be completely satisfied? No."

General Manager Jim Bowden said Sunday that the team's talks with free agent pitcher Pedro Astacio are "dead" following a conversation earlier in the day with Astacio's agent, Steve Schneider.

"They're not moving at all in their position," Bowden said. "We tried to meet a fair and equitable compromise with the player. But we're turning the page now."

Astacio is also reportedly weighing offers from the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres, although Astacio is not eligible to be placed on the Padres' 25-man roster until May 1 because of baseball's arbitration rules. Astacio reportedly turned down a $1.2 million offer from the Colorado Rockies in January.

The only other free agent starting pitchers still on the market who spent significant time in the major leagues last year are Kevin Brown, Ismael Valdez -- neither of whom apparently interest the Nationals -- and Roger Clemens.

Harming the Nationals' financial maneuverability is the fact the team is approaching its payroll budget figure of $60 million. Lawrence, who underwent surgery Sunday morning to repair a torn labrum, will receive his entire $3.5 million salary for 2006 (although the Padres are responsible for a small part of it), even if he does not pitch at all.

There are far more teams looking for starting pitching help this time of year than teams with extra starters to deal, but the Nationals feel there are potential trade partners -- perhaps most notably the Boston Red Sox, who are prepared to give top prospect Jonathan Papelbon the fifth starter's job, making another starter such as Matt Clement and/or Bronson Arroyo expendable.

However, Clement, who is owed $9.5 million in both 2006 and 2007, may be too expensive for the Nationals. Arroyo, meantime, signed a three-year, $11.25 million contract with the Red Sox in January. Complicating the Red Sox' picture is the fact the team reportedly promised veteran lefty David Wells that they would try to trade him to a West Coast team by the end of the spring.

According to a team source, the Nationals have already approached the Red Sox about a trade involving second baseman Alfonso Soriano, whom the Nationals acquired in a December trade and are trying to persuade to accept a move to left field, but the Red Sox showed very little interest.

The Nationals, whose farm system and organizational depth are rated among the worst in baseball, are in better shape than they were a year ago, thanks to a winter of aggressive stockpiling. Still, aside from 21-year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and catcher Brian Schneider, whom the Nationals consider to be virtually untouchable, the team's most tradable position players are probably first baseman Nick Johnson and outfielder Ryan Church.

Lawrence's injury leaves the Nationals' rotation perilously thin beyond top starters Livan Hernandez and John Patterson. Presently, Tony Armas Jr., Ramon Ortiz, Ryan Drese and Jon Rauch are considered the top four candidates for the final three starting slots, but Drese is being brought along slowly this spring following shoulder surgery in September.

On Sunday, Robinson indicated that 26-year-old left-hander Billy Traber, whom the team signed quietly this winter to a split major league-minor league contract, could be considered as part of that mix.

"Traber is going to be stretched out [as a starter], because I want to see him," Robinson said. "Our people have said they like what they see. They think he's going to be a good one."

Traber, once one of the top-rated prospects in the New York Mets' farm system, saw his promising career sidetracked by elbow ligament-replacement surgery in September 2003 while with the Cleveland Indians. He missed all of 2004, and spent 2005 in the Indians' farm system, going a combined 8-11 with a 4.83 ERA in Class A, AA and AAA.

"If we don't [acquire another] proven arm, why am I going to worry about it? I have to work with what I have." Robinson said. "There's nothing better for a manager than to be able to say in spring training: 'I'm leaving here with these guys. I know I can count on these guys to give me this many wins, this many wins, this many wins.' We just don't have that here this year. No use losing sleep over that."

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