By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007
PHILADELPHIA, July 26 -- The Washington Nationals are on the verge of announcing a two-year contract extension for first baseman Dmitri Young, their only all-star, sources said Thursday.
The deal, which two sources said they believe is worth $10 million, would continue a rebirth for the once-troubled Young, but also brings into question the future of first baseman Nick Johnson, who has missed all of this season but is owed $11 million in 2008 and '09.
If Young, 33, signs, the deal would take yet another trading chip off the market just days before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Both Young and Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden declined to comment Thursday.
Young, who signed with Washington for $500,000 in February after a season filled with personal and professional strife, has developed into one of the best bargains in baseball as Johnson has failed to recover from a broken leg suffered last September. He went 2 for 4 in Thursday's 7-6 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, putting his average at .333. He has nine homers and 53 RBI and has been the only consistent force in a Washington lineup that has scored fewer runs than any in baseball.
With Young apparently close to signing, the Nationals have now made moves that have surprised some in baseball, locking up two of their most attractive trade commodities. Infielder Ronnie Belliard signed a two-year, $3.5 million extension Monday.
But where Young would fit in over the next two seasons is a bit unclear. Young has expressed a willingness to move to the outfield, and that's a possibility if Johnson returns healthy next season. Young has played 495 games in the outfield during his career, but has just 20 starts there since 2003, none since 2005. One person with the organization said Thursday, "He's not going to play outfield at that weight." Young is currently listed at 245 pounds.
The move would seem to put some pressure on Johnson to heal and return to the form that made him what Manager Manny Acta called the most important player in the lineup of last year's Nationals. He hit .290 with 23 homers and 77 RBI in 2006, and his .428 on-base percentage was the third highest in the National League.
Asked Thursday if he was out for this season, Johnson said: "I don't know. I mean, the minor league season ends" in early September, and Johnson has been adamant that he must play in minor league games before he returns to the majors.
"I don't want to just be out there," he said. "I want to just play. Once I'm back, I want to just go," with no restrictions.
That seems increasingly unlikely this season. Johnson visited a hip specialist in New York just before the all-star break, and he had a cortisone shot in his hip to relieve pain there last week. He has returned to taking ground balls and has taken swings in the batting cages, but still doesn't have full strength in his hip, where a rod was inserted into his leg last September.
Several players said Young's potential return would be well received in the clubhouse.
"It's more about the person," veteran Robert Fick said. "They're going to spend the money. They say they're going to increase the payroll. We believe them. But whether Nick comes back or not or Dmitri goes to the outfield or whatever, they care a lot about the kind of person he is and the kind of job he's doing."