By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
At a time when much of the baseball world expected the Washington Nationals to be selling off their veteran pieces, the club's first move in the week leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline was to keep a player. Veteran infielder Ronnie Belliard signed a two-year, $3.5 million extension with the club yesterday, a move that seemingly took the versatile player off the trade market and made him part of a Nationals' future that they expect to be much brighter.
"I'm surprised," Belliard said by phone last night from Philadelphia, where the Nationals will begin a three-game series tonight. "But when it came out that there was a chance to stay here, I liked it. I appreciate the fans. And these young guys, they want to have a good team. Probably next year, things will be better."
That, then, was the message the Nationals were trying to send yesterday.
"We're trying to build," General Manager Jim Bowden said, "not tear down."
Belliard, who is making $850,000 this season, will earn $1.6 million in 2008 and $1.9 million in 2009, according to a source with knowledge of the deal. He is hitting .305 in 85 games and -- with an injury to Cristian Guzman -- is the everyday second baseman.
"We like him as a bench player," Bowden said, "and we like him as an everyday player."
Belliard, 32, was presumed by scouts and executives reached earlier in the day to be trade bait. The Nationals' inventory of movable parts is well-known throughout baseball. For the right price, a contending team could have relievers Jon Rauch or Chad Cordero, outfielder Ryan Church or first baseman Dmitri Young.
That doesn't mean the Nationals are guaranteed to make a trade. A year ago, Bowden held the most marketable commodity in baseball, outfielder Alfonso Soriano. But when Bowden didn't like the offers he received, the club kept Soriano. That has officials from other teams wondering if the Nationals, in a market in which the majority of teams are wary of parting with elite prospects, will complete any deals.
"They didn't move Soriano," one scout said yesterday. "They could hold on to these guys, too."
Asked yesterday if Belliard was effectively off the trade market, Bowden said: "I don't know what that means. Every player in our entire organization is on the trade market, if that's what you want to call it."
Washington could pursue proven major league players in an effort to hasten the rebuilding process. Cincinnati outfielder Adam Dunn has long been a Bowden favorite, and Foxsports.com reported yesterday that the Nationals were pursuing him.
Bowden declined to talk about Dunn. Team president Stan Kasten declined to discuss the team's position in the market. Cincinnati is one of several clubs -- including San Diego, Philadelphia and the Chicago Cubs -- that have scouted the Nationals' Class A Potomac affiliate recently. Club officials believe there is no greater need than a 30-homer, 100-RBI hitter. The Nationals are last in the majors in runs and homers.
Dunn, 27, entered last night hitting .260 with 26 homers this season, and he has hit at least 40 homers in each of the previous three. He was leading the majors with 119 strikeouts this year, and since his first full major league season in 2002, his 972 strikeouts were 175 more than anyone else. Some of his power, too, is because of Cincinnati's tiny Great American Ball Park. His career numbers at home -- 124 homers, .552 slugging percentage -- outshine his production on the road (100 homers, .483 slugging percentage).
There are several factors that would complicate a deal for Dunn, not the least of which is Dunn's contract. If he is traded, Dunn becomes a free agent at the end of this season. The Nationals almost certainly would want assurances that Dunn would re-sign here.
Cincinnati also filed a grievance with MLB after last summer's eight-player trade between the teams because they felt the Nationals were not forthright about the health of reliever Gary Majewski, who went on the disabled list in August. The Nationals vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
An MLB official said yesterday the matter is still under review. Reds GM Wayne Krivsky, however, said in the offseason, "I don't like eliminating teams from the pool of players to acquire."
The possible pursuit of Dunn and the signing of Belliard are manifestations of what Kasten has said all along, that the team will be flexible. Last year, they appeared to deviate from a plan of cutting payroll by trading for right fielder Austin Kearns and infielder Felipe Lopez as part of the deal with Cincinnati that included Majewski.
"We look for opportunity," Kasten said at the time, and he has repeated that since.
As for the major league players the Nationals have made most available, sources continued to indicate yesterday that it might be difficult to find a fit, a problem that isn't unique to the Nationals.
"A lot of clubs, when you go to talk about their players, they think the guy's a starter because he starts for them," one scout said. "But for a contender, he's a bench player."
That, the scout said, would apply to someone like Church, who is hitting .262 with 39 RBI in 92 games for the Nationals. The same philosophy applies to Cordero, who has been a consistent closer for the Nationals but likely would be a setup man for a contender.
Young, who is hitting .340, could become the National most likely to be moved. Washington might opt to keep Young because of the questions about the health of Nick Johnson, who has been out all season with a broken leg.
"We never change our plan," Bowden said. "We're trying to build the organization into a world championship club. In doing that, we explore every possibility."