By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO, July 22 -- In one afternoon, with a pair of moves, the Washington Nationals removed all mystery about the status of their two most valuable veterans and answered several questions about how the team will look next season. The two moves -- Washington re-signed shortstop Cristian Guzmán, 30, to a two-year, $16 million deal without incentives and traded closer Jon Rauch to the Arizona Diamondbacks -- have one similarity: Both netted middle-infield starters for 2009.
In exchange for Rauch, Washington received 23-year-old second baseman Emilio Bonifacio, who will be sent to Class AAA Columbus. Known for his speed and originally signed by Arizona then-scouting director Mike Rizzo, now Washington's assistant general manager, Bonifacio likely will be promoted to the majors by season's end. General Manager Jim Bowden called him "our second baseman next year" and "our second baseman long-term."
The flurry of activity forced the Nationals into several short-term decisions, too. To replace Rauch on the roster, Washington recalled Garrett Mock, who's already made two starts, both losses, for the Nationals this season. But this time, Mock will pitch from the bullpen. Meanwhile, to replace Rauch's role on the team, Manager Manny Acta installed Joel Hanrahan as the team's new closer.
Without Rauch -- "my security blanket," Acta called him -- Washington removed the lone stabilizing presence from its bullpen. But the decision underscored the Nationals' strategy to build for next year -- a tacit admission that 2008 cannot be salvaged.
In recent weeks, the team had looked into dealing Guzmán, too. After all, his four-year, $16.8 million contract was due to expire at year's end. His value, like Rauch's, had reached a high point. Washington's front office analyzed its future middle-infield options, which included a minor league system barren of such players, and decided that Guzmán was the best bet.
Guzmán, the team's lone all-star this season, had wanted a three- or four-year deal, he said, but was receptive to something shorter in large part because of sympathy. His first three years with the Nationals had been wasted by injuries and underperformance. Said Guzmán, "They had to pay for a player who was not on the field every day."
Guzmán was "sensitive to what we went through with his last contract, the four years where he was hurting for the most of it," Bowden said. "He gave back to the club by signing a two-year deal and he knows on the free agent market he gets the four years."
Asked about the length of Guzmán's contract, Bowden said: "We preferred two. We went through four years of injuries with Cristian. We didn't want to have another contract and all of a sudden we have injuries again."
Similar to the Guzmán deal, the trade for Bonifacio was layered in history. For more than a year, the Diamondbacks had expressed interest in Rauch. For just as long, the Nationals had kept an eye on Bonifacio -- who, until two months ago, was "untouchable," Rizzo said. The Diamondbacks' recent bullpen problems ratcheted up their need for Rauch, 4-2 with 17 saves and a 2.98 ERA for the Nationals. (He pitched a scoreless ninth inning for Arizona in Tuesday night's victory over the Cubs.) In turn, Arizona's willingness to deal a player Rizzo called "the fastest player in all of baseball" loosened.
Rizzo first saw Bonifacio when the latter was a 16-year-old, trying out at the Diamondbacks' complex in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. As part of the drilling, players were asked to run a 60-yard dash. Rizzo watched a blur, looked at his stopwatch and gasped: Bonifacio had run a 6.22.
"I said, 'Is this 60 yards legit?' '' Rizzo recalled Tuesday. " 'Or is this a Dominican 60 yards?' '' They re-measured the distance and confirmed its accuracy.
The Diamondbacks signed Bonifacio. Since then, because Arizona has Orlando Hudson at second, Bonifacio has played several positions, including center field. Some 10 days ago, Rizzo paid a visit to Class AAA Tucson to watch him play both. "A refresher course," Rizzo said.
But all along, Rizzo and others in the front office were convinced that Bonifacio belongs at second. Acta, who knows the prospect because of his ties to the Dominican winter league's Licey Tigers, compared Bonifacio to Luis Castillo of the New York Mets.
Before Bonifacio is recalled from Class AAA, he needs more seasoning. This year in the minors, Bonifacio, a switch hitter, is batting .302 in 367 at-bats. He also has 17 stolen bases in 25 attempts. He needs to cut down on his strikeouts and boost his on-base percentage, though, before he develops into an ideal leadoff hitter.
"Tough to trade a closer," Bowden said. "It's hard to trade Jon Rauch. Very difficult. You have to trade a reliever when you have the chance to get an everyday position player who's 23 years old. You have to do it."