By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 2, 2007
When Austin Kearns arrived in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse following his July trade from the Cincinnati Reds -- the team located all of 90 miles from his home town of Lexington, Ky. -- he was admittedly stunned, lost as he tried to adjust to his new surroundings. This week, though, Kearns decided those new surroundings are where he wants to be for the immediate future, and yesterday he signed a three-year contract with a club option for a fourth year that guarantees him $17.5 million and could pay him as much as $26.5 million.
"I got to see how close this is to getting it to where they want it to go," Kearns said at an afternoon news conference at the downtown offices of the Lerner family, which owns the Nationals. "I really do think it's closer than what people expect because I think there's a lot of pieces of the puzzle that are already here on the field, and pieces that are here off the field. It excited me."
The Nationals, under the Lerners' ownership and the guidance of President Stan Kasten, have been exceptionally cautious about spending money for what they consider to be short-term fixes, and thus have pursued no significant free agents this offseason. But both Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden believe Kearns -- a .265 career hitter who established career highs with 24 homers and 86 RBI in 2006 -- has the potential to be one of the club's cornerstones. They said the move shows the team is committed to spending on the right deals.
"We expect this to be built for long-term success, and that's going to require investment in long-term building blocks, which we are eager to do," Kasten said.
In agreeing to the contract, Kearns avoids two years of arbitration and gives up two years of free agency. He will earn $3.5 million this season ($150,000 less than the club offered in arbitration), $5 million in 2008 and $8 million in 2009. The club option for 2010 is worth $10 million, with a $1 million buyout.
"I don't like a player going on the market," Bowden said. "I don't like a player going into his last year of a contract. I like assets."
Given the skyrocketing market for players this offseason, it's possible that if Kearns fulfills his potential -- and Manager Manny Acta said yesterday he expects "big things, 25-plus home runs and 100-plus RBIs" -- the Nationals could get a bargain. At 26, Kearns is still coming into his prime as a hitter. Injuries and inconsistency have limited him to an average of 103 games a season. He has made four trips to the disabled list, and in 2005 the Reds sent him to the minors because of poor performance. The Nationals, though, are undeterred.
"When I was on the other side, I feared him," Acta said by phone. "For us to have a guy in the middle of the order who's happy, that's a great move."
Washington still has potential arbitration cases with right-hander John Patterson and closer Chad Cordero. Neither is close to a compromise. Patterson, though, said yesterday that a deal like Kearns's leads him to think about being in Washington far into the future.
"It's hard to look past this season, but at the same time, it's kind of hard not to," Patterson said by phone. "With the new stadium being built, you have to really believe that ownership is going to look hard at keeping a lot of us. There's really a lot of excitement around the team going into '08."
Nationals Notes: Patterson, who is coming off elbow problems that limited him to eight starts last year, said he has had no problems in offseason workouts. "I haven't had anything go wrong," he said, and he expects to proceed with a normal spring training and be ready for Opening Day. . . . Kearns will switch his uniform number to 25 from 28, which he had worn since he was a rookie. "Kind of a new start," he said. Acta said Kearns likely would hit fourth until first baseman Nick Johnson comes back from his broken leg.