BASEBALL

Nats' Deal For Estrada Is Finalized

Friday, February 1, 2008

Free agent catcher Johnny Estrada passed his physical yesterday, finalizing a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the Washington Nationals that furthers plans to send promising 23-year-old Jesus Flores to the minor leagues.

Estrada, 31, agreed to the deal early in the week, just after veteran Paul Lo Duca, the presumed starter, underwent surgery to repair a slight tear of the meniscus in his left knee. General Manager Jim Bowden, however, said signing the switch-hitting Estrada had more to do with providing the opportunity for balance in a lineup full of right-handed hitters than it did with Lo Duca's injury, which is expected to take four to six weeks to heal.

"Going into the offseason, we really felt like we wanted to improve offensively at catcher and in center field," Bowden said. "We feel like we've done that."

In addition to Lo Duca, a career .288 hitter, and Estrada, who is a .280 hitter over parts of seven major league seasons, the Nationals added talented youngsters Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, either of whom could play center field.

Estrada hit .302 in 2006 with Arizona, spent 2007 in Milwaukee, was traded to the Mets last November but then not tendered a contract by New York, making him a free agent. He made $3.4 million in 2007, but the market collapsed for him when starting catching spots dried up, making him available for Washington.

Estrada's reputation as a handler of pitching staffs has taken a beating in recent years, which didn't help in his pursuit of a job. He also walked just 12 times in 464 plate appearances last year, yielding a horrible .296 on-base percentage.

But the Nationals hope the realities of his situation will spark Estrada. Both he and Lo Duca will be free agents after this season. That could eventually leave the job to Flores, who Bowden said would likely end up at Class AA Harrisburg.

"He needs some more development," Bowden said, though he quickly added, "We think he's our long-term solution."

Flores hit .244 last season while backing up Brian Schneider, since traded to the Mets. After being selected in the December 2006 Rule 5 draft, Flores had to remain on the Nationals' major league roster for the entire season or else be offered back to the Mets. He developed a reputation as a clutch hitter, but he has only once appeared in more than 82 games in a four-year pro career.

"It's tough to go from being 'Rule 5'd' and go from Single A to the big leagues and not get many at-bats and then all of a sudden be ready to start," Bowden said.

There are several free agent starting pitchers still on the market, but the Nationals are unlikely to pursue those targets, preferring to let a group of pitchers, most of whom are in their twenties, battle for five spots in the rotation.

-- Barry Svrluga


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