Nationals Notebook

Starting Pitchers Might Be Out of Club's Range

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2007

At last month's winter meetings, as mind-blowing deals were being brokered in all corners of the baseball world, officials from the Washington Nationals -- determined to stick to a plan of not spending on free agents until they believe the club can truly be competitive -- sat back and wondered if the market would ever come back to them. A month after those meetings, it might not.

The Nationals have kept in touch with the agents for some of the 21 starting pitchers remaining on the market, including Tomo Ohka and Ryan Franklin. But in a market in which only two starters -- Wade Miller and Kerry Wood, both of the Chicago Cubs -- have signed for less than $4 million annually, it appears that the asking prices still haven't fallen in the Nationals' range.

"It's a situation where they have a limited payroll to work with, and I'm not sure their limitations are going to allow it to happen," said Mike McCann, the agent for Franklin, who went 6-7 with a 4.54 ERA for Philadelphia and Cincinnati last season. "I think it would be a good fit, both for Washington and for Ryan, but I understand their position. We'll continue to talk, but I'm just not sure" a deal can be reached.

The $126 million left-hander Barry Zito received from the San Francisco Giants was the pitching blockbuster of this offseason. But more important to the remaining free agents are such deals as the $4 million the Boston Red Sox are about to give Joel PiƱeiro, who wasn't tendered a contract by Seattle after posting a 6.36 ERA.

General Manager Jim Bowden declined to comment yesterday on any of the Nationals' possible targets. But one team official said this week, after scanning a list of the starters who are off the market -- contracts totaling nearly $600 million industry-wide -- that not one of the contracts came close to fitting into Washington's plan.

Prospects Ranked

Baseball America, the trade magazine that annually ranks the top 10 prospects in each organization, put right-hander Collin Balester atop its just-released list for the Nationals. But the striking aspect of the rankings is that seven of the 10 players weren't with the franchise eight months ago. Is it a sign of how well the club has done in procuring young talent since the new ownership of the Lerner family took over, or an indication of how bad things were before?

"Both," said assistant general manager Bob Boone, who oversees player development. "We knew we were barren, and we knew we had to get some draft picks to fix that, so everything we've done has been leading to that."

Of those on the list, only Balester, outfielder Kory Casto (No. 4) and shortstop Ian Desmond (No. 10) were in the Nationals' system last spring. The 2006 draft brought outfielder Chris Marrero and right-hander Colton Willems, Nos. 2 and 3, in the first round and right-hander Zech Zinicola, left-hander Glenn Gibson and shortstop Stephen King (Nos. 6, 7 and 9, respectively) in later rounds. Shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez, ranked fifth, signed for $1.4 million out of the Dominican Republic in July, and lefty Matt Chico, ranked eighth, was part of the September trade that sent Livan Hernandez to Arizona.

Balester, a 20-year-old taken in the fourth round of the 2004 draft, had spotty results at Class A Potomac last year (4-5, 5.20 ERA), but he made adjustments late in the season, and by the time Boone saw him make one start, he promoted him to Class AA Harrisburg for his final three appearances, where he posted a 1.83 ERA and an opponent's average of .231. "We're real excited about him," Boone said. . . .

The Nationals are moving closer to signing three players they saw during a workout last month at their Dominican complex attended by Manager Manny Acta, scouting director Dana Brown and special assistant Jose Rijo -- two pitchers and a catcher, according to team officials.

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