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BY TODD JACOBSON
WASHINGTON--Austin Kearns grew up in Lexington, Ky., was drafted by the closest thing to a hometown team--the Cincinnati Reds--and spent eight years in the same organization.
So when the 26-year-old right fielder was traded from the Reds to the Washington Nationals last summer, change came about slowly.
"It all happened kind of fast," Kearns said. "I think the first time a player gets traded you are probably in a little bit of shock. I adjusted here pretty quick. I like this area."
And yesterday, Kearns seemed right at home as he signed a $17.5 million contract extension that could keep him in D.C. through 2010.
Kearns will make $3.5 million this season, $5 million in 2008, $8.5 million in 2009. The Nationals hold a $10 million club option for 2010 that includes a $1 million buyout.
"I don't think there is going to be a better place to be here very soon," said Kearns, who donned his new No. 25 jersey (he wore No. 28 a year ago) during a press conference at the Washington Square office building owned by the Nationals' owners.
Kearns, who would've been a free agent in 2009, avoided arbitration with the deal, leaving starting pitcher John Patterson and closer Chad Cordero as Washington's only players possibly headed to the negotiating table.
Though the Nationals have chosen to rebuild through scouting and player development and stayed out of the high-priced free agent market this winter, Kearns became the third young Nationals player inked to a long-term contract in the last year.
First baseman Nick Johnson, 28, and catcher Brian Schneider, 30, both signed contract extensions last year, keeping them in Washington through 2009.
Along with Johnson, Schneider and 22-year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Kearns makes up the core of the team's foundation, general manager Jim Bowden said.
"It's important from the club's perspective obviously that we keep our good young players," Bowden said. ". . . That's something we plan to pursue and we will continue to do so."
Kearns was acquired with infielder Felipe Lopez and reliever Ryan Wagner July 13 in an eight-player deal that sent shortstop Royce Clayton, relievers Bill Bray and Gary Majewski and two minor leaguers to the Reds.
Bowden, who drafted Kearns while he was the general manager of the Reds in 1998, long coveted the outfielder, who battled injuries during the early part of his career in Cincinnati.
He stayed mostly injury-free last season and played in a career-high 150 games, registering career-bests in home runs (24), RBIs (86), and doubles (33).
However, he struggled a bit with the change in Washington, both with the city and with a new position. He played center field for four games after the trade before moving back to right field, and slumped at the plate, going 6-for-30 in his first nine games.
In 63 games following the trade, he hit .250 with eight homers and 36 RBIs, though he contributed several game-winning hits and impressed team officials with his arm and range in right field.
"This is a player that is very strong, has the ability to drive in runs, move the runners over, hit the ball out of the ballpark," Bowden said. "His best years are ahead of him. His prime just starts now."
The exact height of Kearns' potential remains unclear.
He has never played a full season without an injury or the distraction of a major trade, but it's clear that the Nationals are counting on big things.
With Johnson expected to miss at least the first month of the season with a broken right femur, Kearns will hit fourth in the Nationals' lineup, incoming manager Manny Acta said yesterday. When Johnson returns, Acta said Kearns would likely hit fifth.
"Contract or no contract I was expecting big things out of Kearns: minimum 25 homers and 100-plus RBIs. He is capable of doing that. He is a guy who I have always admired and feared from the other side," said Acta, who spent the last two seasons as the Mets' third base coach.
With the start of spring training looming in less than two weeks, Kearns sounded ready to get started.
"I don't think people actually realize the talent that is already here and how close this thing can get to be where we want it," he said. "I am looking forward to it and just excited about being here and the direction it's going."Todd Jacobson: 540/735-