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WASHINGTON--At the height of baseball's offseason spending frenzy, Nationals general manager Jim Bowden took stock of the market, his rebuilding team and shuddered.
If the market--highlighted by a $136 million deal for former National Alfonso Soriano--softened in January, Washington might be able to unearth a few bargains, he thought.
It hasn't happened.
The market remains, in Bowden's words, "very unfriendly," and the Nationals--with a starting rotation that now consists of right-hander John Patterson and up to a dozen journeyman, former prospects and rookies vying for four other spots--have distanced themselves from the dollars flowing toward free agents.
"I think our entire pitching staff this year will make less than Gil Meche," Bowden said.
Meche, of course, is the 28-year-old right-hander with the 55-44 career record who signed a five-year, $55 million deal last month with the Kansas City Royals.
And even if the team had that kind of cash earmarked to throw around this winter, Bowden said he'd be hanging on to his wallet.
"I think what this market has done which is unique to any market I ever remember is there are a lot of mediocre players that have been paid as if they had been stars," Bowden said.
"If we had had the money for this offseason, we probably would be sitting here with the same result we have right now anyway in terms of the free agent market," he said. "I don't think there are any contracts out there that we look at and say, 'Oh, if we had the money, we would've paid that and given that many years.'"
Not Ted Lilly's four-year, $40 million deal with the Cubs. Not Jason Schmidt's three-year, $47 million contract with the Dodgers. Certainly not Barry Zito's seven-year, $126 million agreement with the Giants.
The Nationals have signed nearly two dozen minor league free agents this winter, focusing on small steps toward rebuilding the franchise, and yesterday added four prospects from the Dominican Republic.
Seventeen-year-old Randy Almonte, a 6-foot-6 left-handed pitcher, hard-throwing but raw right-hander Marcos Frias, catcher Ricardo Martinez and left-hander Francisco Vizcaino aren't likely to see Washington for years, if ever, but they mark another step in the team's development of a once-moribund farm system.
"These guys are major league-caliber prospects, especially the left-handed pitcher [Almonte]," said Nationals amateur scouting director Dana Brown, who saw the players during a tryout camp in the Dominican Republic Dec. 17. "He has a chance to pitch in the rotation one day."
As for the near future, the status of the Nationals' rotation remains muddled, though Bowden and manager Manny Acta sounded content to head into spring training with a hodgepodge starting rotation.
"If we have an opportunity, we'll jump on it," Bowden said during a media luncheon yesterday at Lerner Enterprises' Washington Square office building. "But we're not going to sit there and overpay to finish in the same place and then take away from signing the four kids from the Dominican or the five picks we have in the top 70 [in the June First-Year Player Draft."
Bowden said the Nationals remain on the lookout for bargains, and the agent for former Giants and Cubs prospect Jerome Williams confirmed the Nationals have made an offer to the 25-year-old righty, but Washington is more likely to improve by inches than miles.
"Probably one or two more, maybe," Bowden said when he was asked about potential moves.
On the wish list is depth at first base, which could be especially important considering the status of Nick Johnson. Bowden said yesterday that the Nationals' first baseman was likely to miss the start of the season recovering from a broken right femur.
Starting pitching, of course, is also a target, but if the Nats' stand pat, the most likely scenario involves a wide-open race for four spots in the team's starting rotation. Pitchers like Tim Redding, Jason Simontacchi, Colby Lewis and Joel Hanrahan--signed to minor league deals this offseason--will get a shot, as will Mike O'Connor, Beltran Perez, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann and Billy Traber.
There will be so many pitchers in spring training that Acta already plans to pare the group down by using two starters a day for the first two weeks of games.
And there could be more.
Bowden said minor leaguers like Matt Chico, Garrett Mock and Collin Balester, could be in the mix as well.
"Manny and I are going to go in with an open mind to try to bring the best team north we can for the best long-term benefit of the Nationals," Bowden said. "That might mean developing two guys in the rotation a little ahead of time and taking a little hit as we're developing.
"That might mean we'd rather bring a veteran because he's pitching so well, because in three months we think we can trade him for a couple of pitching prospects," he said. "It's not going to be an exact science."Extra bases
Nationals president Stan Kasten confirmed that former manager Frank Robinson and the organization were parting ways. Robinson, who was fired in September after five seasons with the organization, was not offered a job in the front office.
"It's a difficult decision for me personally, because all of us have so much respect for Frank," Kasten said. "I have nothing critical to say about him."
Robinson told The Free Lance-Star Monday that he would not be interested in an unpaid offer to work with the team in spring training.
Acta said Nook Logan, who was acquired in a late-season trade with the Detroit Tigers, would enter spring training as the Nationals' starting center fielder.
Kasten said a winter caravan, with stops planned in Virginia, Maryland and the District, is scheduled for Jan. 22-29. Acta, as well as players and the team's "racing president" mascots, are likely to attend various events around the area.
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