By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
The Washington Nationals yesterday made the first significant free agent signing under the ownership of the Lerner family, agreeing to terms with four-time all-star catcher Paul Lo Duca on a one-year, $5 million contract, two sources with knowledge of the deal said.
The move, which was pending a physical examination, completes a frantic 10-day period in which Washington was more active than any major league club. It traded for talented outfielders Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, shipped out veteran catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church, and tapped Lo Duca as the man to play alongside Jesus Flores, the 23-year-old the Nationals believe will be their No. 1 catcher for years to come. Two other moves -- a trade for 23-year-old right-hander Tyler Clippard and the signing of veteran backup infielder Aaron Boone -- could also impact the 2008 team.
Club officials would not comment on Lo Duca's deal, which could be formally announced as soon as today. General Manager Jim Bowden, who left last week's winter meetings in Nashville with Lo Duca in his sights, did not return messages seeking comment. Neither Lo Duca nor his agent, Andrew Mongelluzzi, returned messages.
The Toronto Blue Jays, who had also pursued Lo Duca, were informed yesterday that they had lost out on the bidding. The Blue Jays' offer is believed to have been roughly $3.25 million with incentives that could have pushed it close to $4 million.
The signings of Lo Duca and Boone represent short-term moves meant to help the 2008 Nationals, the first team to play in the new Nationals Park in Southeast Washington. Such moves are generally shunned by team president Stan Kasten, who believes the core of a team should be built first through the draft and player development. Kasten, previously the president of the Atlanta Braves, generally eschews long-term free agent contracts unless he believes his club is close to championship-caliber.
But both Bowden and Kasten professed a desire during the winter meetings to sign veteran players to short contracts that might help in 2008 but, more importantly, wouldn't hinder the long-term plan to build a team that contends for a championship in the not-too-distant future.
Lo Duca, who turns 36 in April, is a .288 career hitter, and he essentially replaces Schneider, who was scheduled to make $4.9 million in 2008, on the payroll for next season. Lo Duca hit .272 in 119 games for the Mets in 2007, and he has appeared in at least that many games in each of the last seven seasons. A contact hitter who is difficult to strike out, he was an all-star each season from 2003 to '06.
The signing -- which comes after the Nationals had pursued a trade for Arizona's Miguel Montero and considered free agent Damian Miller and current New York Met Johnny Estrada -- allows the Nationals some flexibility regarding Flores. As a rookie in 2007, Flores -- whom the Nationals snatched from the Mets in the Rule 5 draft a year ago -- hit .244 with 25 RBI in just 180 at-bats, impressing club officials with his poise along the way.
Still, after the trade of Schneider -- who went to the Mets along with Church in exchange for Milledge on Nov. 30, the club's first major offseason move -- the Nationals said they were uncertain exactly how the catching situation would play out. Bowden said at the winter meetings that Flores could end up as the starter or even in the minor leagues depending on who else the Nationals acquired.
"I think it depends upon how much we think Flores is going to catch," Bowden said last week. "If we think he's going to platoon and catch two or three times a week, he's probably better in the big leagues. If he's not going to catch at all, then he should go to Triple-A and get 500 at-bats. It's a tough question to answer."
Lo Duca essentially gives the Nationals flexibility, allowing them to push Flores at a comfortable pace. Some scouts wonder about Lo Duca's defense as he ages, and his on-base percentage of .311 in 2007 was his lowest since 2000, before he became a full-time player.
Still, Lo Duca's offensive numbers compare favorably to those of Schneider, who has a reputation as a superior defender. In five seasons since 2003, when Schneider first became a starter, he hit .250 with a .322 on-base percentage and a .372 slugging percentage. Over the same period, Lo Duca, who has also played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Florida Marlins, hit .287 with a .335 OBP and .397 slugging percentage.
For a team that scored the fewest runs of any in baseball, even a slight offensive upgrade was of interest to Bowden.
"In this league right now, you've got to hit," Bowden said last week. "If you don't have three $15 million bats, it's hard to have a lineup where you have light-hitting guys in certain areas. Ideally we'd like to upgrade our offense in several positions."