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At winter meetings, Nationals act like a team approaching respectability

Stephen Strasburg is the future. The Nats are working to get there quicker.
Stephen Strasburg is the future. The Nats are working to get there quicker. (Richard A. Lipski/the Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

At the winter meetings this week, the Nats signed a future Hall of Famer as a backup catcher for two years for an above-market price of $6 million. They also traded for a reliever who throws 97 mph, had a 3.25 ERA over his last four years with the Yankees and just pitched in the World Series.

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So, by adding Iván Rodríguez and Brian Bruney, do the Nats qualify as busy holiday shoppers?

"These are smaller items on our list," team President Stan Kasten said. "Now we can move on."

Finally.

The Nats have been promising to move on -- and up -- from baseball's nether regions since the Lerner family bought the team in '06. Now, after averaging 96 losses a year, they may be doing it.

The real test of the Nats' offseason will be whether they can sign the free agent starting pitchers they desperately need to bridge the gap to what they hope will be the era of Stephen Strasburg.

They want to sign at least one, and probably two, dependable mid-rotation starters from a long list that includes Joel Piñeiro (3.49 ERA), Jarrod Washburn (3.78), Jon Garland (4.01), Jason Marquis (4.04), Doug Davis (4.12), Vicente Padilla (12-6), Carl Pavano (14-12) and others, including Liván Hernández, John Smoltz, Jaimee Grubbs . . . sorry . . . just making sure you're paying attention.

Any credible team needs at least three 180- to 210-inning starters who are this good. The Nats have only John Lannan (3.88 in 206 innings). Oh, someday . . . Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, etc. But you never go from 103 losses to playoff contention in a gulp; the worst-to-firsts of '91 were the exception that proves the rule. You need to get to .500 first. And, with their tiny payroll, that's what the next two Nats years should be about.

Regardless of whom the Nats acquire in this game of pitching musical chairs -- and hurlers Andy Pettitte, Randy Wolf and Brad Penny have already been grabbed, reducing competition for the rest -- the Rodríguez signing is as revealing an omen as the Nats are likely to provide this offseason.

Pudge has played in 14 all-star games, won 13 Gold Gloves, been AL MVP, caught for two pennant winners and one world champion and has more runs and hits than any catcher in history.

And, at 38, he can still play. Last year, St. Louis allowed the fewest stolen bases in baseball. The Cardinals' catcher, Yadier Molina, is the new Pudge lite. The Astros allowed the second-fewest steals. Their catcher, until a mid-August trade, was Rodríguez. Even now, only the fastest dare to steal on him and 35 percent get thrown out. Also, Pudge is still a passable batter -- middle of the pack among catchers in homers (10) and RBI (47) last year. Yet the Nats merely signed him to be a $6 million sub who may play 70 games.

At last, the Nats appear to be a team that can't bear to lose 100 games again -- and take the flak and lost attendance that go with it. And they are willing to take out expensive insurance in case catcher Jesús Flores doesn't recover fully from shoulder surgery.


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