- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

The Washington Nationals signed first baseman/outfielder Brad Wilkerson to a one-year, $3.05 million contract yesterday, avoiding arbitration with the franchise’s reigning MVP.

Wilkerson, who tied departed Tony Batista for the club lead with 32 home runs in 2004, received a substantial raise in his first year of arbitration eligibility. He made just $375,000 last season.

Wilkerson, 27, has a rare combination of power and speed, plus a keen batting eye. He drew 106 walks in 2004 and posted a .374 on-base percentage while also clubbing 71 extra-base hits and stealing 13 bases for the second straight year.

“Those are pretty special numbers,” interim general manager Jim Bowden said. “He’s one of the players we’re building the team around, one of the core players.”

Wilkerson was an easy choice for Expos Player of the Year by reporters who covered the team in Montreal. It wasn’t easy, however, for manager Frank Robinson to settle on an ideal place to play and bat Wilkerson, perhaps the roster’s most versatile member.

A natural left fielder, Wilkerson actually wound up getting more starts at first base (78) than in the outfield (76) because of injuries to Nick Johnson. Wilkerson has proved plenty adept at first base — he has a career .996 fielding percentage in the infield — and could get plenty more starts there this year if Robinson decides to use second-year player Terrmel Sledge in left field.

Robinson also penciled in Wilkerson up and down his daily lineup in 2004, but ultimately batted him leadoff 107 times, a rare place for a guy who hit 32 homers, batted .255 and struck out 152 times. Wilkerson’s ability to get on base, though, made him a natural top-of-the-order hitter in Robinson’s mind, which may explain why he finished the season with only 67 RBI.

“Had he hit in the middle of the lineup all year, he’d probably have had 100 RBI,” Bowden said. “But you can put him anywhere in the lineup. He doesn’t complain if you put him at first, in left, center or right. He’s a very loyal guy. If you had eight of him on your team, you’d be champions.”

Though there was some push from Wilkerson and agent Scott Boras for a multi-year extension, Bowden was reluctant to commit several million dollars toward a player who won’t be eligible for free agency until 2008. He’ll leave that task to the eventual owners of the MLB-operated franchise.

“I think that’s more appropriate when the new owner comes in,” Bowden said. “At that time, it makes more sense to talk about multi-year contracts.”

Wilkerson’s signing leaves the Nationals with three remaining arbitration-eligible players: Johnson and right-handers Tony Armas Jr. and Tomo Ohka. Bowden said he remains in contact with agents for all three players on “an almost daily basis,” but he’s running out of time to negotiate deals.

Players can file for arbitration through Jan. 15, the two sides must exchange figures by Jan. 18 and hearings are held from Feb. 1 to 21. Although deals often are struck before a hearing takes place, Bowden said he prefers not to once contract figures are officially submitted to the arbitrator.

“I don’t think at this point any of the three are going to be easy,” he said. “We’ll continue to negotiate, and hopefully we’ll get a settlement. If not, we’ll arbitrate.”

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