By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
The Washington Nationals' offseason has been spent eliminating big, expensive, aging pieces and replacing them with smaller, cheaper, younger ones. So it was that on a day made notable by the official elimination of the longest-tenured and highest-priced player in the organization, the Nationals offset the loss by adding four names to the teeming masses of bargain players who will report to Viera, Fla., in less than two months in search of roster spots.
With veteran second baseman Jose Vidro passing his physical examination for the Seattle Mariners yesterday afternoon, the Nationals officially completed the trade that was spawned two weeks ago at the winter meetings. Vidro, a three-time all-star whose tenure with the Montreal/Washington franchise dates from his being drafted in 1992, heads to Seattle in exchange for 25-year-old outfielder Chris Snelling and 22-year-old pitching prospect Emiliano Fruto, both of whom are leading candidates to make the Nationals' roster next spring.
"We feel [the trade] is consistent with our plan," Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said in a conference call with reporters.
In separate moves, the Nationals also signed left-handed reliever Ray King and right-hander Jason Simontacchi to minor league contracts that include spring training invitations -- two more potential members of a pitching staff that, at present, lacks definition except at the very front end of the rotation (John Patterson) and the very back end of the bullpen (Chad Cordero).
Of all the players in yesterday's bounty, perhaps the most intriguing is Snelling, a onetime top offensive prospect in the Mariners' farm system whose career has been derailed by injuries.
"I've had nine surgeries, or maybe 10," Snelling said in a telephone interview. "Seven on my left knee alone. I'm not going to say I'm not injury-prone. People have to make their own conclusions. I don't know why it's happened the way it has. But everything I do is geared towards making sure my body is healthy."
Asked about his health, Snelling pronounced himself "good to go." In Viera, he will join a group of current and former prospects competing for outfield jobs in Nationals camp, a group that includes Ryan Church, Alex Escobar and Kory Casto.
"When a player is injured it's tough to give a barometer of where they are," Bowden said when asked about Snelling, whose minor league résumé is highlighted by seven seasons of batting .300 or better. "When he's healthy, we know what kind of prospect he is."
The trade of Vidro, the franchise's primary second baseman since 1998, also facilitates the move of Felipe Lopez from shortstop to second base -- a switch that was discussed in advance with Lopez before the Vidro trade was consummated. Veteran Cristian Guzman, who missed all of 2006 following shoulder surgery, is expected to return to shortstop in 2007.
"He's smart," Manager Manny Acta said of his conversation with Lopez before the trade. "He understood what was going on. He didn't resist [the position switch] at all, and he was completely open to it."
"We're not saying [Lopez] can't play shortstop," Bowden said. "And we're not closing the door on him playing shortstop for us."
For the Nationals, the trade of Vidro was as much about ridding themselves of Vidro's unwieldy contract -- it guarantees him $16 million over the next two seasons, of which the Nationals kicked in $4 million -- as it was about the prospects they received in return. Their player payroll, which topped $60 million at the start of the 2006 season, is now projected to be in the less than $40 million on Opening Day 2007, barring any pricey additions.
Notes: The Nationals also are expected to announce in the coming days that they have reached agreements on minor league contracts with infielder D'Angelo Jimenez, outfielder Abraham Nuñez and left-hander Luis Martinez.
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.