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Washington Nationals Release Shawn Hill, Sign Joe Beimel to 1-Year Deal

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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 19, 2009

VIERA, Fla., March 18 -- Unwilling to count on the health of Shawn Hill, the Washington Nationals released one of their most promising, troubled pitchers. Unwilling to enter the season with an assembly line of unproven bullpen pitchers, the Nationals signed free agent left-hander Joe Beimel to a one-year, $2 million deal.

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With those transactions, over the course of several hours Wednesday, the Nationals created a clash of emotions -- dejection, as they cut ties with Hill, one of their most respected players; and relief, as they strengthened the most worrisome part of their club.

Manager Manny Acta called Hill's release "probably the toughest decision I've had to make since I've been here." He said he was "thrilled" with the signing of Beimel, whom he immediately anointed as the eighth-inning set-up man.

Hill, 27, had spent the previous four years in constant comeback mode, trying to recover from, at varying points, reconstructive elbow surgery, a shoulder injury, and forearm tightness. Through all of it, the Nationals stuck with the right-handed sinkerballer, drafted in 2000, back when the organization was in Montreal. Always, the Nationals spoke of Hill's potential and his ability -- if healthy -- to anchor a rotation. Acting general manager Mike Rizzo grew tired of waiting, even though Hill, in an exhibition start on Monday, threw one scoreless inning and looked healthy.

"Well, you can only go by what you know and the track record of the player," Rizzo said. "We thought the uncertainty of what he's going to bring to us on a daily basis was really the factor behind us releasing him. He's healthy for now, yes, but we don't know how long that is going to be for. And that affects how we plan not only for this season but for the future also."

The decision's timing was largely based on money. Hill, set to earn $775,000 this year, will now get only a sixth of that, or roughly $130,000. Wednesday was the deadline to allow such a fractional payment.

According to several, Hill was devastated by the news. Hill was summoned to Space Coast Stadium in the morning, before his teammates arrived for that evening's game. He met with Acta, who informed him. Hours later, his locker was empty.

"I personally was very shocked," teammate Jason Bergmann said. "I didn't understand it at first. I came in, didn't see his name tag on the locker and thought somebody was playing a joke on him. He lives right down the street, and I think it's gotta be hard to drive past the stadium knowing he's not a National anymore."

Only by coincidence did Hill's release coincide with Beimel's signing. For almost a month, Rizzo said, the team had targeted Beimel. Last year, his third with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Beimel had a 2.02 ERA in 71 games -- 49 innings. Beimel, who will wear No. 97, is expected to arrive in Viera on Thursday and undergo a physical.

"He really gives us balance and experience in the bullpen," Rizzo said. "He pitched extremely well the last three or four years with the Dodgers, and with the Pirates. He was a guy that our scouts really liked -- his aggressiveness on the mound. He holds runners great. He fields his position well."

With Hill, the ability was almost always speculative. Since his debut in 2004, he'd won only seven games with a lifetime 4.93 ERA. He never started more than 16 games in a season, and even joked last week that he sees orthopedist James Andrews's secretaries often enough to carry ongoing conversations.

In glimpses, Hill convinced the Nationals that he deserved faith, and a spot in their rotation. After his one inning on Monday, which included two strikeouts, Hill said his arm felt terrific. The team had scheduled him to start Friday against Detroit, likely going two innings.

The Nationals now have re-ordered that plan, listing Collin Balester and Gustavo Chacín as potential starters.

From among that group, Washington will try to fill the back end of its rotation. Top prospect Jordan Zimmermann, 22, has pitched 12 1/3 innings this spring; he has yet to allow a run, and he has yet to give the team one reason not to place him on the staff. The final job -- assuming John Lannan, Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera are locks -- will go to Balester, Chacín, or 21-year-old Shairon Martis. That, or Rizzo will find a way to parlay the team's surplus of outfielders into another starter.

This is the second spring in a row in which Washington released one of its top starters. Last March, the team released oft-injured John Patterson, whose decreased velocity augured lingering problems. Patterson is now retired. One scout who saw Hill pitch earlier this week, though, described him as the "Hill of old."

"He looked like he was healthy," Rizzo said. "But again, healthy after this time, yes. But with the track record, we just didn't know when and how long we could count on him being healthy, so that's how the decision was made."


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