Washington Nationals acquire reliever Brian Bruney in trade with Yankees

Brian Bruney was 5-0 with a 3.92 ERA for the Yankees in 2009, but he wants to be a closer, and they don't need one in New York.
Brian Bruney was 5-0 with a 3.92 ERA for the Yankees in 2009, but he wants to be a closer, and they don't need one in New York. (Reed Hoffmann/associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- Central figures only one year ago, those involved in the creation and implosion of the 2009 Washington Nationals are now scattered, just part of the fallout from a year with many mistakes. Manny Acta, manager for the first half of Washington's season, is back at the winter meetings -- this time as skipper of the Cleveland Indians. Jim Bowden, architect of a team that could build leads but never retain them, is back, too. He's an XM radio host, and to refine his interviewing skills he now studies Matt Lauer and Larry King.

For the Nationals, only the lessons from 2009 remain in the foreground, and to that end, a new group of decision-makers is here at this annual four-day hot stove convention -- this time in search of the exact components they previously ignored. They took the first step Monday, bolstering their bullpen depth by acquiring right-hander Brian Bruney from the New York Yankees for a player to be named.

The Bruney deal armed the Nationals with a potential closer who throws in the upper-90s and knows the pressure of a big market. It also marked the starting point for an offseason in which the Nationals unveiled a savvier blueprint. After ignoring pitching and defense one year ago, those are now the qualities they crave. After entering 2009 with one untested closer and no fallback option -- how did that turn out? -- the Nationals now seem inclined to stockpile hard throwers and let them compete for the job.

Bruney, who turns 28 in February, appeared in 44 games with New York last season, finishing with a 5-0 record, a 3.92 ERA and a World Series ring. He made $1.25 million in 2009, and upcoming arbitration will boost his salary again. The Nationals still have incumbent closer Mike MacDougal on their roster, but even if they retain him, Bruney should get a shot at the job. General Manager Mike Rizzo drafted Bruney in Arizona and prefers pitchers who fit his mold -- big-bodied, hard-throwing, bullish on the mound.

"Well," Bruney said, "you get no B.S. from me."

Bruney's résumé -- he has 13 career saves, 12 of which came in 2005 -- merits no promises about the ninth inning job, and neither Rizzo nor Manager Jim Riggleman was giving them. But both acknowledged that Bruney would be given an opportunity, with Rizzo saying, "He's a big-stuff guy. He's had great success at the highest level of competition. He's pitched in the playoffs, under pressure. We feel he's going to be one of the back-end-of-the-bullpen guys, and we feel he really makes us a better club because he strengthens one of our weak points in the bullpen."

Washington and New York began discussing the Bruney deal two or three weeks ago, and still the final piece isn't resolved. The last element in the deal should come Thursday, though, when the Nationals are expected to deal their top pick in the Rule 5 draft to New York. The Nationals, who unconditionally released Saúl Rivera to make room on their roster for Bruney, will have to make another roster move to clear a temporary spot for the Rule 5 selection.

When Bruney, while deer hunting in Texas, learned of the move on Monday, he thought more about the opportunity than his new team's track record. The Yankees had Mariano Rivera, and thus, no room for a closer. With the Nationals, Bruney could take the next step in his career.

"I love closing ballgames," he said. "There's nothing better than that in my opinion. I felt like New York was a good stepping stone with lots of pressure-filled situations. But to be honest, I had talked to my agent and I said, 'I can't wait to get to the place where I can try and close somewhere.' "

Even with Bruney on board, Rizzo still wants to add arms to his bullpen. He'll also get the chance to entertain trade offers for left fielder Josh Willingham, a strong-hitting defensive liability who typified the team's needs (and pursuits) one year ago. Willingham, who hit .260 with 24 homers last season, has drawn interest from at least a half-dozen clubs, most notably the Mets, who might want an alternative to high-priced free agents Matt Holliday and Jason Bay.

As the first day of these winter meetings ended, though, Washington was showing reluctance to deal the 30-year-old, and his agent believed he'd start the year in Washington's outfield.

"He's a guy that we're not looking to move," said Rizzo, who could use Willingham to acquire a starting pitcher. "We would only move him in a situation that improves our ballclub, but like we said, we're going to look at all avenues on all players. But yeah, Josh would be a difficult guy to move for us, definitely."

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