- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

The Washington Nationals will go into spring training without the free-agent pitcher they’ve long sought after learning yesterday that prize left-hander Odalis Perez will re-sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Nationals interim general manager Jim Bowden had pursued Perez, 27, for the last month but ultimately fell victim to his club’s stringent budget. Perez is believed to have agreed to a three-year, $24million contract with the Dodgers, with incentives that could push the total value to $26million.

According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Bowden received permission from club president Tony Tavares to slightly increase his original offer of three years, $18million but not by enough to lure Perez to Washington.

“We played up to the point where we couldn’t afford it, and then after that, we had to bow out,” Bowden said. “I think he would have been a very good signing for us. But at the end of the day, we really couldn’t afford to sign him within our payroll structure.”

Though the Nationals still are about $6million under their $50million budget, they appear unlikely to pursue any other free-agent pitchers. Bowden has said he is interested in acquiring only younger players still reaching their peak, and the remaining free agents on the market (Esteban Loaiza, Ismael Valdez and Aaron Sele, among others) don’t fit that description.

Thus, Washington will be content to enter spring training with a starting rotation filled entirely with returning arms. Veteran Livan Hernandez, who led the majors in innings pitched and complete games in 2004, is slated to start Opening Day, with right-handers Tony Armas Jr. and Tomo Ohka (both coming off injuries) behind him. Left-hander Zach Day (5-10, 3.93 ERA) is the front-runner for the No.4 spot in the rotation, with the final spot up for grabs between right-handers John Patterson and Jon Rauch and top left-handed prospect Mike Hinckley.

“We don’t want to spend money on a stop-gap solution,” Bowden said. “That doesn’t make sense. We’re better off giving the ball to Mike Hinckley or John Patterson or Jon Rauch and continuing to develop our young pitchers within. Our dollars are better spent on player development and scouting and building the ballclub the right way.”

That development will officially begin Feb.15, when pitchers and catchers report to the club’s spring training headquarters in Viera, Fla. Position players report Feb.20, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for Feb.22, the team announced yesterday.

The Nationals make their on-field debut March2 against the New York Mets, the first of 17 scheduled home games at Space Coast Stadium — former training site of the Montreal Expos. Washington has 16 road dates scheduled, including an April2 exhibition finale against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tropicana Field.

Following the highly anticipated spring opener against the Mets, the Nationals will play host to Bethune-Cookman College on March3, then enjoy one of two scheduled off-days before traveling to Fort Lauderdale on March5 for the first “Battle of the Beltways” game against the Baltimore Orioles.

The new geographic rivals meet three times this spring, with the Orioles coming to Viera March13 and March25. They won’t play each other during the regular season.

Among the other notable games on the Nationals’ spring slate are a pair of 7:05p.m. home games (March26 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and March29 against the Mets). Washington faces nine major league opponents during its 33-game schedule (the Mets, Dodgers, Orioles, Devil Rays, Cardinals, Tigers, Astros, Braves and Indians).

Fans can order full spring-season and five-game mini-ticket plans by calling the club’s Viera headquarters at (321) 633-9200. Individual spring game tickets (which cost between $7 and $18) will go on sale Jan.15 at 10a.m. and can be purchased through Ticketmaster, nationals.com or in person at Space Coast Stadium.

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