The Washington Nationals last night discarded one of their most celebrated additions from last offseason, third baseman Vinny Castilla, and all but certainly thrust rookie Ryan Zimmerman into the Opening Day lineup for 2006 when they traded Castilla to the San Diego Padres for right-hander Brian Lawrence.
Although Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said his top priority for the offseason is pitching, this move has far more to do with Zimmerman than it does with Lawrence, who went 7-15 with a 4.83 ERA in 33 starts for the Padres last season. The Nationals took Zimmerman from the University of Virginia with the fourth pick in the June draft, and his quick development, along with Castilla's lack of production during an injury-plagued year, made the move possible.
"This move is completely designed to open up third base for Ryan," Bowden said. "When we signed Vinny, we thought it would be a stopgap until we were able to develop a third baseman. We thought it would take two years. It turned out it only took one."
In 20 games after being recalled from Class AA Harrisburg on Sept. 1, Zimmerman, now 21, hit .397 with six RBI and 10 doubles, impressing his teammates and the coaching staff with his poise. When the Nationals selected him in the draft, Bowden gushed about his defensive ability, comparing him to the greats who have ever played the position, including Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt. Asked last night if he thought Zimmerman would develop as quickly as he did, he said, "I think you can check back on my quotes when we drafted him and see that I did."
"I'm definitely excited," Zimmerman said. "Not that I needed anything to get ready for in the offseason, but this gives you kind of a sense of security. If Vinny was still here, it's his job until someone says otherwise. But now, I can go into the spring knowing I have a really good shot."
Zimmerman, who is playing in the Arizona Fall League, said he is realistic about what to expect from his first year as a starter.
"I felt the month I had went really well," he said. "I put up good numbers. But if I'm there the whole year, I know it's not going to be like that. Anyone who tells you different is wrong. I think the main thing for me will be to play good defense, and to be consistent, to hit well in situations."
Zimmerman's potential left the Nationals essentially having to move Castilla, who is 38 but wants to remain a starter, according to his agent, Eric Goldschmidt. "He still thinks he can play every day," Goldschmidt said.
Castilla got off to a blazing start in April but struggled through the summer and wound up hitting .253 with 12 homers and 66 RBI, a fraction of his 2004 production, when he hit .271 with 35 homers and a National League-leading 131 RBI for the Colorado Rockies. He was bothered nearly all year by an injury to his left knee, which he said prevented him from shifting his weight properly so he could drive the ball.
Castilla had $3.2 million remaining to be paid on the two-year, $6.2 million deal he signed with the Nationals last year. Lawrence was due to be paid $3.5 million had he stayed with the Padres next season, but received an extra $250,000 because he was traded, according to a source with knowledge of the contracts. The Padres agreed to pay the difference between the two contracts, making the deal a financial wash for the Nationals.
Lawrence also has a club option for 2007 that Washington could buy out for $550,000, the source said. The Padres agreed to pay $425,000 of that buyout should the Nationals exercise it, leaving Washington to pay $125,000.
Lawrence is 49-61 with a 4.10 ERA in five major league seasons, all with San Diego, and he only has one winning season, when he went 15-14 in 2004. He said last night that the move would take some getting used to because he and his wife make their offseason home in San Diego.
"I have to treat it like an opportunity," he said. "We'll make the best of it."
Lawrence, 29, has thrown at least 195 innings in each of the last four years, but he considers 2005 a lost season.
"It was a horrible year," he said. "It was the worst year of my career. But I'm going to start over, and I'm going to start fresh. I'm committed to getting better."
Bowden envisions Lawrence, an offspeed pitcher who relies on locating his fastball and working in a slider, to fit into the fourth or fifth spots in the Nationals' rotation. Bowden said the trade for Lawrence does not alter the Nationals' pursuit of other pitchers, including two of their own, free agents Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco.
"This doesn't change our plans, not at all," Bowden said. "You never get enough pitching. The only thing it changes is that now we know we have a fourth or fifth starter."
The Nationals have already been in contact with the agents for the top starters on the market: Florida's A.J. Burnett, Cleveland's Kevin Millwood and lefty Jarrod Washburn of the Los Angeles Angels. Teams can begin making offers to free agents on Nov. 10.
Bowden said the move to trade Castilla and essentially put Zimmerman in the starting lineup was made easier by the performance of infielder Brendan Harris in the Arizona Fall League. Harris, who briefly appeared with the Nationals over the summer, is leading the league with a .397 average, and he could prove a useful insurance should Zimmerman struggle, Bowden said.