- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Continuing to seek more veteran influence for their bench, the Washington Nationals signed 36-year-old infielder Carlos Baerga to a minor league contract yesterday.

Baerga, a three-time All-Star with the Cleveland Indians a decade ago, is unlikely to make the Nationals’ roster out of spring training. But with infielder Henry Mateo still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and Alejandro Machado recently traded to Boston, Washington was in need of bench help.

“I’d say he’s a long shot to make the team,” interim general manager Jim Bowden said. “But we’re short a couple of infielders, and I’ve always liked his leadership qualities. We have a young club here, and he’s a good guy to have out there.”

The Nationals aren’t risking much by signing Baerga, a career .292 hitter, to a nonguaranteed deal. If he makes the club, he will earn $350,000. If he doesn’t, Washington won’t be the hook for anything.

Once a rising star in Cleveland, Baerga resurrected his career in 2003 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The switch-hitter batted .343 with four homers and 39 RBI in 105 games, becoming a beloved clubhouse leader along the way.

Baerga’s production declined sharply last year after he signed a $1million deal with the Diamondbacks. Hampered by a calf strain and ignored while Arizona went with a youth movement, he slumped to a .235 average and got just 85 at-bats.

Bowden has been more than willing to sign longtime veterans to minor league deals. In addition to Baerga, who is expected to arrive in Viera today or tomorrow, he brought in outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds and third baseman George Arias this winter.

Though all are long shots to make the team, manager Frank Robinson understands the importance of having veteran role players in camp and welcomes them to his clubhouse.

“You need experience,” Robinson said. “Does every guy need to be a veteran? No. But [some part] of your bench needs to be tested guys who have been around because it’s a very difficult job. You need those guys.”

Ready to go

The Nationals hold their first full-squad workout this morning, a welcome sight for Robinson, who has been dying to get his entire roster on the field at the same time.

“It gets a little stale [when it’s only pitchers and catchers],” he said. “You just feel like a team when everybody else is here. You’re a little closer to the season starting. I enjoy the pitchers and catchers, but I think everybody ” even the guys out there ” feel a lot better when everybody gets in here.”

Though position players only were required to take their physicals yesterday, nearly all made it onto the field for a light workout. In fact, seven of the eight projected regulars (all but center fielder Endy Chavez) took batting practice.

The first session by the lead hitting group ” outfielder Brad Wilkerson, first baseman Nick Johnson, third baseman Vinny Castilla and shortstop Cristian Guzman ” drew a large crowd around the cage.

“Guys are excited to get rolling again,” Wilkerson said. “Everybody seems to be upbeat, happy and ready to go. Seeing guys out here early impresses me a lot. I know it impresses [Robinson].”

MRI for Beltran

Reliever Francis Beltran underwent an MRI to determine whether there’s any damage to the right elbow that has been bothering him for some time.

Results of the test aren’t expected back until today, but Beltran is facing long odds to make the Nationals’ Opening Day bullpen. Acquired from the Cubs in July in the four-team deal that sent shortstop Orlando Cabrera to Boston, he finished the season 2-2 with a 5.47 ERA in 45 appearances for Montreal.

Even if he’s healthy, Beltran is at best in competition for the final spot in the bullpen. Right-handers Chad Cordero, Luis Ayala, Antonio Osuna and T.J. Tucker and left-hander Joey Eischen are all but guaranteed jobs, and lefty Joe Horgan is the favorite to earn the sixth spot.

Extra bases

The Nationals came to terms with both Beltran and outfielder Alex Escobar on 2005 contracts. The club has only six players unsigned on the 40-man roster: Ayala, Chavez, Cordero, Mateo and right-handers Zach Day and Jon Rauch. …

To get even more healthy bodies in uniform, the club invited 19-year-old shortstop Ian Desmond to join the major league camp. Desmond, the third-round pick in last summer’s draft, is one of the organization’s top prospects.



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