Nationals Let López, Lo Duca Go

By Chico Harlan and Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 1, 2008

On the day of baseball's trading deadline, the Washington Nationals altered the complexion of their roster. But only the smallest part of that alteration came from a trade. A series of bold personnel moves made after yesterday's 8-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, including the release of two high-priced veterans, vaulted the team into the season's final two months with a roster at once younger, cheaper and more mechanized for the future.

By releasing Paul Lo Duca, 36, and Felipe López, 28, two underperforming veterans who lacked trade value, the Nationals created roster space for players whose value to the team likely will be measured for years. Washington immediately recalled Elijah Dukes, 24, from his rehab assignment with Class AAA Columbus and added to its roster shortstop Alberto González, 25, acquired earlier in the day in a minor trade with the New York Yankees.

The team also announced its intention to promote second baseman Emilio Bonifacio, acquired July 22 from Arizona in the trade for Jon Rauch, from Columbus. In addition, the Nationals formalized the release of catcher Johnny Estrada, designated for assignment last week, but to reduce their roster to 25 they must make one more move today.

The upshot: The Nationals swapped old for new, swallowing the rest of money owed to Lo Duca (making $5 million this year) and López ($4.9 million) and buying themselves the chance to see their already-promising left fielder, their future starting second baseman and their newest acquisition.

"We're going to turn the page," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "We're going to get younger for the last two months and we're going to continue to develop young players. We want players here that are going to hustle and play the game hard and play the game right. We just feel at this point we need to give younger players an opportunity and we're going to do that."

All deadline attempts to trade López and Lo Duca had failed, so Washington took the final step -- a move that both players understood. Lo Duca had signed this offseason to serve as Washington's catcher; instead, injuries first forced him from the lineup. Then, Jesús Flores's development forced him into awkward experiments at first base and catcher. When Bowden and Manager Manny Acta gave Lo Duca the news, he apologized to them. "I feel bad," said Lo Duca, batting .230 in 139 at-bats. "It's just an unfortunate year."

López was part of the July 2006 deal that brought him, along with Austin Kearns, from Cincinnati. But in two full seasons here, he never demonstrated the form that earned him a 2005 all-star appearance. "To get released and leave everybody, it's not good," López said. "But I understand the business and everything. They just signed a couple young guys that deserve a chance just like I did when I went up. I don't have nothing bad to say. I wish those guys the best."

Both players spoke about finding another team. Lo Duca even mentioned that he planned to go to the gym today, work out, and then hit in the cages. But at least in Washington, they've left behind a clubhouse that now belongs to a younger set.

Dukes, who injured his right knee on July 5 in Cincinnati, has already shown flashes of potential, the kind that in June made him the team's top offensive threat. In part because of his performance since joining the organization, Bonifacio's debut, too, will be anticipated: In eight games with Columbus, he batted .452 (14 for 31) with nine runs scored.

The final addition to the team comes from the lone trade Washington orchestrated yesterday, when it dealt Class AA pitcher Jhonny Núñez to the Yankees for González. Several in the team's front office, including assistant general manager Mike Rizzo, knew of González from his time with the Arizona organization, before he was dealt last year to New York in the Randy Johnson deal. Washington liked González's fielding ability especially, and believes he can hit between .250 and .260 at the big league level.

But that acquisition stood in place of an otherwise quiet afternoon. Washington had been in discussions to acquire a middle-of-the-order first baseman, but when the 4 p.m. deadline neared, Bowden decided to hold off. If nothing else, he said, discussions could resume in the offseason.

Then, he went about planning the moves that will change the shape of the team for the rest of this season.

Asked if he was surprised about the moves, Lo Duca said, "I think they're making the right move. Other guys in here need to play and I'm taking up a spot."

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