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Church May Be of Some Service

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Dec. 4 -- During spring training in 2005, Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden liked the potential of Ryan Church so much that he essentially fired the club's starting center fielder from the season before, Endy Chavez, and granted the rookie a shot to be an everyday player.

But as baseball's winter meetings began Monday, the Nationals were trying to drum up a market for Church, hoping to find a team willing to part with a prospect -- preferably a pitcher -- in return for the 28-year-old who has only 527 major league at-bats. Potential suitors include Detroit, Pittsburgh, Houston and the Chicago Cubs.

Church angered some Nationals officials when he declined to play winter ball in Mexico, where Bowden wanted him to work on hitting off-speed pitching. Church's agent, Jeff Borris, advised against it.

"He had nothing to prove down there," Borris said Monday. "All his statistics add up to one fine season. He needs someone to give him 500 at-bats [in a season] and I think we'll see what he can do."

For his part, Bowden said Church "has good standing with the club." But it's clear Washington is willing to give oft-injured Alex Escobar, unproven Nook Logan and Kory Casto, who has never played above Class AA, chances to win the spots in left and center field.

Bowden said the club is willing to consider Casto, who hit .272 with a .379 on-base percentage for Class AA Harrisburg, as a starter.

"In an ideal world, we'd like him to go to Triple-A," Bowden said, but he quickly added: "We're not going to make any determinations. We're going to let the players make those determinations on the field."

Borris said he had not spoken with Bowden about Church's future with the club. Asked if he thought Church would still be a National next season, Borris said, "I believe he's earned the right to get a chance to be an everyday player, whether it's in Washington or somewhere else."

One member of a potentially interested franchise said talks were only in the nascent stages. There are still questions about with which franchise the Nationals match up best. Detroit, for instance, needs to move outfielder Marcus Thames, but it's unclear whether Washington would be willing to take him rather than a pitcher.

Infield Possibilities

Two other Nationals have been the discussion of much talk among other clubs, according to sources -- second baseman Jose Vidro and closer Chad Cordero. The difference: The Nationals would love to unload Vidro and the $16 million remaining on the final two years of his contract, and the club would love to keep Cordero, who will be 25 next season.

Vidro is tied into a middle infield log-jam with shortstops Felipe Lopez and Cristian Guzman, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. But there might be another factor that affects Vidro's future: first baseman Nick Johnson is scheduled to be in Washington on Tuesday for a checkup with team doctors on his broken right leg. The club can't say with certainty that he'll be healthy to start the season.

"The doctor feels that he'll be ready for Opening Day," Bowden said. "You don't know, ever, until the player is there."

Vidro, whose skills at second base have eroded, played eight games at first after Johnson's injury in September, and Bowden said it would be up to Manager Manny Acta to decide whether Vidro or a prospect, such as Larry Broadway, would fill in at first if Johnson isn't ready.

But Seth Levinson, Vidro's agent, said via e-mail last night, "There has never been a single conversation with the Nationals about Jose playing first or about him being traded." Levinson added that he didn't expect Vidro to be dealt.

A Fond Farewell

Former National Jose Guillen passed his physical and officially became a Seattle Mariner, completing a one-year, $5.5 million deal. Late Sunday night, though, Guillen expressed his regrets about leaving Washington, where he played two tumultuous seasons.

"I always said, and I still believe, I wanted to spend the rest of my career in Washington," Guillen said. "I was treated very well there, and I loved the fans. But it didn't work out, and I had to do something else."

The Nationals, who did not want to keep Guillen, will receive a draft pick sandwiched between the first and second rounds as compensation. . . .

Head athletic trainer Tim Abraham, who held his post for two years, resigned Monday.

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