No Major Moves, Two Minor Ones
Nationals Still Shopping Church; Team Picks Up Catcher, Pitcher in Rule 5 Draft

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Dec. 7 -- Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden all but sprinted from the Walt Disney World Dolphin resort late Thursday morning, acting fidgety and eager to vacate a spot where, over the four days of baseball's winter meetings, he was forced largely to sit on his hands.

Yet Bowden made every attempt to make it seem as if the Nationals would complete a trade soon, perhaps within the next week. Asked to assess the meetings as a whole, he was evasive.

"When our whole process is completed and everything's announced, then I'll answer the question," Bowden said. "I'm not going to answer it now."

The Nationals' priority remains the same -- acquiring young starting pitching, perhaps through a trade of outfielder Ryan Church, whose representatives met with the Nationals during the meetings. Though primary agent Jeff Borris -- who was tied up largely in negotiations surrounding his star client, Barry Bonds -- is adamant that Church has "earned" the right to be an everyday starter, Borris did not make a play-him-or-trade-him demand.

The Cubs and Nationals discussed Church as recently as Thursday morning, and it's possible Chicago would be willing to send 24-year-old left-hander Sean Marshall -- who went 6-9 with a 5.59 ERA as a rookie last year -- to Washington. Philadelphia also is believed to have continued interest.

But with nothing completed, Bowden and his staff were left to take two players in Thursday's Rule 5 draft -- catcher Jesus Flores, who played Class A ball in the New York Mets' system last season, and right-hander Levale Speigner, who was in Class AA and AAA with the Minnesota Twins in 2006.

The Rule 5 draft is designed to prevent clubs from hoarding prospects, and includes only players not protected on a team's 40-man roster. Though the group of players available in this year's draft was supposed to be the weakest in memory -- a result of rule changes that gave clubs the right to hold on to players longer -- the Nationals said Flores and Speigner were their top two targets.

"We got the guys we wanted," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said.

Now, the question becomes whether they will keep them. To do that, the Nationals would have to keep the players on their major league roster for the entire 2007 season. If they elect to send one to the minors, they must first offer him back to his former team. Rule 5 drafts from the past are filled with success stories, such as two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana of the Twins, and busts, such as the Nationals' own Tony Blanco, who spent the entire 2005 season in the majors but, after injuries, fell to Class A last season.

There may, however, be a spot for one or both players on next year's Nationals. Though 30-year-old career minor leaguer Brandon Harper played well when he came up at the end of last season, the Nationals would prefer to develop a younger catcher behind veteran Brian Schneider. The Mets were disappointed to lose the 22-year-old Flores, who hit .266 with 21 homers and 32 doubles in 120 games in the Class A Florida State League. The Nationals received rave reviews of Flores from former scout Davey Johnson, minor league manager John Stearns and Acta, who worked as a Mets coach the past two seasons.

"He's got tremendous tools," Acta said. "He's a young kid. We can afford to carry the guy, and I believe he can be an everyday guy in the future."

Bowden said he relied on scouting director Dana Brown's evaluation of Speigner, who went 4-3 with a 3.57 ERA in 49 relief appearances in Class AAA and Class AA last season. The 26-year-old, however, also has started, and Brown believes he could in the majors -- though that opinion is not universally shared by team executives. One said Speigner was somewhere between current Nationals relievers Ryan Wagner and Saul Rivera in ability. Washington also lost infielder Alejandro Machado, a 24-year-old whom the club signed last month but was selected by the Twins in the Rule 5 draft. Bowden said he was "disappointed" to lose Machado, who he thought might have been a utility infielder on next year's team.

Nationals Notes: There was some buzz as the meetings closed that the Nationals were again involved in discussions about sending closer Chad Cordero to Boston for a package that would include outfielder Wily Mo Peña, a Bowden favorite. But Nationals officials insisted there was no chance that would happen. One executive familiar with the talks said the Red Sox were "dead" as a trading partner for Cordero. . . .

The Nationals made an offer this week to one of their former players, free agent right-hander Tomo Ohka, reported. Ohka, who was traded to Milwaukee in June 2005, went 4-5 with a 4.82 ERA in an injury-plagued season for the Brewers in 2006. His agent, Jim Masteralexis, didn't immediately return a phone call last night. . . .

Larry Reynolds, an agent and the brother of former major leaguer and ESPN analyst Harold Reynolds, said the Nationals spoke to Harold about the possibility of becoming the color analyst for the team's television broadcasts on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. But Larry Reynolds said his brother and isn't pursuing the job.

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