By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
INDIANAPOLIS -- The most surprising free agent signing from the winter meeting's opening 48 hours registered first as a four-syllable double-take -- the Nats signed Pudge? -- and shortly after as a lively parlor debate, everybody trading opinions on whether the Washington Nationals had filled a need or burned their money.
By the accounts of some baseball executives, Washington's two-year, $6 million deal with Iván Rodríguez, the future Hall of Fame catcher, was about one year longer and $4 million richer than warranted. Rodríguez is 38. He's coming off the poorest offensive season of his career. No other team in baseball, according to several sources, was offering a multiyear deal.
But Rodríguez, despite his diminished skills, represents a commodity -- and Washington officials spent part of Tuesday explaining why they paid a premium to install him as their part-time starter behind the plate. Rodríguez, a 13-time Gold Glove winner, remains one of the game's top defensive catchers. He's ideal to guide a young pitching staff. If Washington's promising 25-year-old catcher, Jesús Flores, fully recovers from right shoulder surgery by spring training, Rodríguez can mentor and start two or three games per week. If Flores suffers a setback, Rodríguez can hold down the full-time job.
Because of the uncertainty about Flores's health, all projections about Rodríguez's role require some guesswork. But Washington's front office believes that Rodríguez, at this point in his career, is best suited to play between 70 to 80 games per season. In 2009, spent with both Houston and Texas, Rodríguez played in 121 games, hitting .249. Among the 182 big leaguers with 400 or more at-bats last year, only four had a lower on-base percentage than Rodríguez's .280.
The Nationals made a quick, determined run at Rodríguez in large part because they felt he could better handle potential significant playing time than other second-tier players on the market. (Rod Barajas and Brad Ausmus, to name a few.) As a bonus: Rodríguez is Spanish-speaking, like Flores. Both catchers employ the same agent, Scott Boras. On Thursday or Friday, Rodríguez will fly to Washington and take a physical, necessary for the deal to become official. Until then, Nationals officials have said they'll refuse to comment specifically on the signing. Even speaking in general terms, though, General Manager Mike Rizzo seemed satisfied with the Nationals' initial moves at these winter meetings. So far, he's bolstered the bullpen (trading for Brian Bruney) and filled the need at catcher. Up next? Perhaps a middle infielder, a starting pitcher, or both.
"I think we've followed our plan," Rizzo said. "We had a plan of attack coming in, and we've done a few positive things here."
Several Washington officials admitted they paid a premium, but rationalized it as the necessary extra step; at this point, the Nationals might have to sometimes overpay to secure their desired free agents. According to one source familiar with negotiations, Rodríguez had been offered other one-year deals worth more than $3 million annually. But Washington's two-year deal was the difference maker, and for some it raised eyebrows.
"Following in the footsteps of Paul Lo Duca and Dmitri Young, another bad [signing] by the Nationals," former Washington GM Jim Bowden said Tuesday on his Sirius XM Radio show. "This time by a new GM, at least."
Early in the offseason, Washington identified Rodríguez as its targeted catcher, relying on heavy recommendations from assistant general manager Bob Boone and player procurement director Kasey McKeon. Jack McKeon, Kasey's father, managed Rodríguez in 2003, when the pair won a World Series with the Florida Marlins. The accomplishment left an impression.
"What a leader he was," Jack McKeon said. "He not only leads by example, but he was really positive with the Latin players. He's a guy that took charge. He took charge of that  club. Good guy, comes to play, unselfish, does all the little things. He's a winner. I heard about the move and I couldn't wait to see Rizzo to say, 'Damn, you got one of my favorite guys!' "
Later, McKeon explained Rodríguez's value in relation to the young pitchers he can potentially help.
"You're probably going to get a half a year quicker development from those young guys and that's where he'll really pay off," McKeon said.