Washington's new Major League Baseball franchise -- which lacks a stadium deal and a permanent owner -- yesterday agreed to terms with shortstop Cristian Guzman and third baseman Vinny Castilla, filling the two positions General Manager Jim Bowden had identified as the team's major gaps.
Next up: An announcement to christen the team with a new name, expected to be the Nationals, is likely to come early next week, complete with the unveiling of a team logo and its red, white and blue color scheme, according to industry sources who requested anonymity because details are still being finalized. And all of these developments come as the team prepares to send e-mails today to those fans who have registered their interest in buying season tickets. Deposits for season tickets will be received beginning tomorrow.
Now, those potential season ticket holders have a better idea of who they'll be rooting for. The agreements with the players -- Guzman for four years and $17 million, Castilla for two years and $6.2 million, according to sources close to the negotiations -- are the team's most significant on-the-field moves of the offseason and, in an otherwise quiet first week of baseball free agency, indicate that Bowden takes seriously his pledge to aggressively assemble a competitive team.
"We had to work fast on this," Bowden said from the team's training complex in Viera, Fla. "We're not a big-market club. We couldn't wait for other people to move -- and then end up competing for these guys anyway."
Castilla is 37, but is coming off a year in which he hit 35 home runs and led the National League by driving in 131 runs for the Colorado Rockies. He hit for a much higher average at Denver's hitter-friendly Coors Field -- .321 at home as opposed to .218 on the road -- but 21 of his homers came away from Coors. Though Castilla averaged fewer than 20 homers in the previous three seasons, Bowden said Castilla's 2004 stats indicate his power isn't just a product of the thin air in Denver. He is a career .280 hitter who has 303 career home runs in a career that spans parts of 14 major league seasons.
"We needed someone in the middle of our lineup," Bowden said. "He's a good defensive player as well as a good offensive player. But he adds something else. We wanted some veteran leadership on the club. We think, besides having a good offensive third baseman who can play defense as well, he should help the development of the team."
Castilla made just six errors last season, fewest among the major leagues' regular third basemen. He will take the place of Tony Batista, who last week declined an offer to return. Bowden then pulled the offer and turned his attention to Castilla and another target, Corey Koskie, who played alongside Guzman for six seasons with the Minnesota Twins.
As important as Castilla will be to the middle of the Expos' lineup, Guzman could have more long-term value. A superb defensive shortstop, he was a mainstay on Twins teams that won three consecutive American League Central Division titles. The four-year deal would mean Guzman, 26, could be the starting shortstop when Washington opens a new ballpark in 2008 -- a deal that has not yet been approved by the D.C. Council.
The agents for both players said they were unfazed by the uncertainty surrounding Washington's franchise. The team is currently owned by the other 29 MLB clubs and is up for sale, making the futures of Bowden, team President Tony Tavares and Manager Frank Robinson tenuous. MLB owners will meet Thursday in Chicago to officially approve the move from Montreal. And the D.C. Council has a vote on a new stadium deal scheduled for Nov. 23.
"We believe Washington is going to be major market," said Stan King, Guzman's agent. "We know, given a couple years, it will be as viable as a New York, a Philadelphia, a Chicago if you will. Fans will get behind this team. Cristian's excited."
Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.