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Nats act like they belong

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.

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.

Also, the Nats are finally paying for the kinds of intangibles that bottom-end franchises seek when they think they are within sight of respectability. Rodríguez can mentor Flores and young pitchers. He's a leader among Latin players. And he'll be a comfort to free agent pitchers considering signing in D.C.: If Pudge will go there, how bad can it be? Worst comes to worst, he's my catcher; that's a sane world.

After years of picking through the remainder in in the offseason and holding lost-soul tryouts every spring at key positions -- hey, can we get Odalis Pérez on the phone? -- the Nats are acting like a normal MLB team. Don't fall on the floor. I already did that last month when the Nats added a dozen scouting and front-office positions in what amounted to a brain raid on other organizations.

Since the day the Lerner family bought the Nats, they have never paid above market simply to field a better team. Like all clubs, they've made bad deals, like contracts with Dmitri Young, Paul Lo Duca and Austin Kearns. But they weren't expensive when the ink was still wet. Young had just been an all-star. Lo Duca hadn't been named in the ignominious Mitchell report (quite) yet and Kearns still remembered how to hit.

But Pudge was different. Maybe he had a one-year, nearly $4-million deal in San Francisco. Maybe. But no two-year offers. Rodríguez wants to play till he's 99, get 3,000 hits (289 to go) and hates one-year indignity deals where an injury or .199 season can end even a great career. So, the Nats were his insurance, too.

"We could 'be smart.' Or we could get the player we wanted by giving him an extra year," Kasten said. "Our baseball people -- Bob Boone and Kasey McKeon -- wanted Rodríguez. They didn't want a catcher. They wanted Pudge.

"We got the player."

That's baseball-ese for: Bad teams have to pay up, so we did.

Are the Nats going to turn the corner and do what is necessary to field a normal competitive team? Or did they begin reaching that decision 12 months ago and, gradually, results are now adding up?

These days, the Nats are protecting against the worst instead of hoping for the best. For example, Bruney. This weekend the Nats will probably non-tender their closer, Mike MacDougal. They'll hope to re-sign him for less as a free agent than he'd have gotten at arbitration ($3-plus million). What if they can't? Answer: Bruney.

The Nats' machinations have just begun. Would they trade Josh Willingham for a major league-ready starting pitcher, then sign a free agent outfielder? Will they settle on Ian Desmond and Cristian Guzmán as the second-base combo or trade for a middle infielder?

Odds are neither deal will come together. That's why the key to this offseason is signing those two free agent pitchers. How many fit the Nats' parameters? "About 10," Rizzo said recently.

What gives a pitcher a sense of security? Why, the catcher in front of him and the bullpen behind him. So, Rodríguez and Bruney came first.

Now, the real shopping begins, for the kind of pitchers who, in light of this week's signings, will probably cost $15 million to $25 million each. For once, the Nats may actually pay the price.

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