Wells Signed to Minor League Deal

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

VIERA, Fla., March 11 -- The Washington Nationals signed right-handed pitcher Kip Wells to a non-guaranteed minor league deal Wednesday, a contract that allows the veteran a chance to revive his career while presenting almost no risk to the club.

Wells, 31, has struggled with injuries since 2006, twice ending up on the 60-day disabled list with blood clots. But acting general manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday that Wells "passed his physical with flying colors," and that the Nationals believe he could help either as the fifth man in a still-developing rotation, a swingman out of a bullpen that hasn't begun to form yet, or a starter for Class AAA Syracuse who would be just a call away.

"I've always liked his stuff," Rizzo said. "He's always been a 'stuff' guy, but different things have prevented him from putting things together."

Rizzo said Nationals scout Jimmy Gonzales recently saw Wells throw an all-out, 50-pitch bullpen session in which Wells threw his fastball from 90 to 93 mph and had good movement on his slider. Rizzo said the club also considered that during Wells's most successful years in Pittsburgh -- in 2002-03, he posted a 3.43 ERA over 64 starts for the Pirates -- his pitching coach was Spin Williams, who now coordinates the Nationals' minor league pitching program. Wells worked out with Williams and pitching coach Randy St. Claire on Wednesday.

"He had his greatest success with Spin," Rizzo said. "He thinks we can do something with him. With Spin and Randy being two real good delivery-type of pitching coaches, I think we can get this guy in the right frame of mind and focus to help us either as a fifth man in the rotation or a swing guy or as inventory" in the minors.

Wells would make $500,000 if he made the major league club. He pitched in the Colorado and Kansas City organizations last season, making just two starts among his 25 major league appearances. He went 7-17 for St. Louis in 2007. In parts of 10 major league seasons, he has only twice posted a winning record, the last time when he went 10-9 for the Pirates in 2003. Since then, he is 23-50 with a 5.32 ERA in 125 appearances. In 31 relief appearances during that time, however, his ERA drops to 3.90, and opponents hit just .225 against him.

"It's a no-risk deal," Rizzo said. "The expectations are that we'll look at him and hope that he can help us out."

Wells will not be thrown directly into game action.

"He looked good for Jimmy," Rizzo said. "But we want to see him some more. You don't know how he'll respond to the adrenaline and game action and all that. We've got time. If he's ready when we break camp, that's great, and if he's not, he can go to the minors."

Who Is This Guy?

In every spring training, there come performances from players who elicit a collective "Who?" And early in the Nationals' camp, one of those is coming from Brad Eldred, a 28-year-old first baseman who played in 74 major league games with Pittsburgh in 2005 and 2007. He beat the Houston Astros with a walk-off, two-run homer Monday, then crushed a three-run homer to the opposite field off New York Mets right-hander John Maine on Tuesday.

Eldred spent last season with the Class AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, for whom he hit 35 homers and drove in 100 runs in just 427 at-bats. He also struck out 144 times, and he's stuck behind a slew of Nationals veterans capable of playing first base -- Nick Johnson, Dmitri Young, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham among them.

"I can't change my approach or worry about who else is here," Eldred said. "I have to just concentrate on what I can do."

Eldred, who is 4 for 11 this spring, stands 6 feet 5, 270 pounds, but Manager Manny Acta said he has shown good footwork at first base. Plus, Acta said, "When he puts good wood on the ball, there's no ballpark that's going to hold it."

Extra Bases

Acta, who managed the Dominican Republic in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, called the Dominicans' elimination in an upset by the Netherlands on Tuesday night "very sad." But he fully endorses the event.

"I loved it," he said. "It's just a tremendous tournament -- so intense." . . .

Catcher Jesús Flores, who has been sidelined since last week with a right elbow strain, said he feels "a lot better" and hopes to play over the weekend. . . .

The Nationals had the day off Wednesday, but pitchers John Lannan and Shairon Martis were among those scheduled to come in and throw with St. Claire so they can stay on schedule in building up their arms. . . . Right-hander Shawn Hill, battling persistent arm soreness, is due to throw a bullpen session Friday, Acta said.

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