Columbus Will Take Over as Top Farm Club

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Washington Nationals yesterday announced a two-year working agreement with Class AAA Columbus (Ohio), which will replace New Orleans as their top minor league affiliate. Though club officials touted the move, two sources said the preferred site was Norfolk because of its proximity to the District, which would have been a boon both for trafficking players between the clubs and for marketing purposes.

"The closer you get to the city, the better," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "But it takes two to tango . . . and this is a big step from New Orleans to Columbus."

The Nationals have also agreed to play an exhibition game in Columbus on their way back from spring training next season.

Columbus, which had been affiliated with the New York Yankees for 28 seasons, has a new ballpark scheduled to be opened late in 2008 or at the start of 2009 -- by which time the Nationals may no longer be there. It's believed the Baltimore Orioles will end up in Norfolk, which just ended its relationship with the New York Mets, who are now vying with the Yankees for the team based in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pa.

Though Columbus doesn't provide the natural fit that Norfolk might have, it is significantly better than New Orleans. Bowden said there are 11 nonstop flights between Washington and Columbus daily, so "if we get an injury at 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock, we'll have the player here for the game."

New Orleans is one of the easternmost teams in the Pacific Coast League, so recalling a player from that team could mean a cross-country flight if the Zephyrs are on the road. Columbus is in the International League, which has 14 teams -- none west of Indianapolis.

The Nationals also announced that Hagerstown, Md., will replace Savannah, Ga., as a low-level Class A affiliate. That deal is also for two years. The team will not be back with short-season Class A Vermont, and is likely to announce a new affiliation within days.

Harper Impresses Just in Time

Brandon Harper spent 10 years in the minor leagues, and had the Nationals not called with an offer to continue his career over the winter, he was set to enroll in management classes at Metropolitan State College in Denver.

"I was ready to go to school," he said.

Instead, the 30-year-old may have extended his career beyond this year. Harper has impressed the Nationals as a backup catcher, going 11 for 30 in his first 13 major league games.

"To me, he hasn't done anything wrong," Manager Frank Robinson said. "It's almost too good to be true."

With left-handed hitting Brian Schneider as the starter, the Nationals would prefer a right-handed hitting backup for next year, and Harper may have played his way into contention. . . .

First baseman Nick Johnson, who entered last night with an on-base percentage of .431, would set a franchise record at that level. Tim Raines's .429 in 1987 is the current mark.

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