- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Washington Nationals last season, particularly during their second-half slide, often were one clutch hit away from victory. It didn’t help matters that they had some of the worst pinch-hitting in baseball — a collective .199 batting average off the bench.

So in an effort to rectify that nagging problem, the Nationals yesterday signed one of the game’s premier pinch-hitters, inking veteran Marlon Anderson to a two-year, $1.85 million deal.

That may sound like a hefty contract for a guy who probably won’t get more than 250 at-bats in 2006. But considering Anderson’s .331 pinch-hitting mark during the last three seasons, Washington general manager Jim Bowden believes it’s money well spent.

“We wanted a guy off the bench who can get a hit with the game on the line,” Bowden said. “It’s a very valuable commodity, and we felt we needed an upgrade there.”

The Nationals will pay Anderson, who turns 32 in January, $925,000 in both 2006 and 2007, a slight raise over his $750,000 salary with the Mets last season. He earned the increase with his impressive work off the bench in New York — a .321 average in 56 pinch-hit at-bats despite a .264 average overall. He also terrorized Nationals pitching, batting .351 (13-for-37) with a homer and six RBI.

In Washington, Anderson will take over the role held by Carlos Baerga, who hit just .241 as a pinch-hitter last season and was rarely used in the field or on the bases.

Anderson is far more versatile. After coming up with the Philadelphia Phillies as a second baseman, he has morphed into a reliable utility man who can also play first base, left field and right field while stealing 12 bases in 15 attempts during the last two seasons.

Make no mistake, though: Anderson’s greatest contribution comes as a pinch-hitter, something he has worked hard to perfect in the past three seasons.

“I think it’s just understanding and accepting my role, understanding that this helps the team just as much as the other things do,” he said. “I enjoy the challenge, getting to hit against the top closer or set-up guy.”

Anderson will give the Nationals insurance at second base, where longtime starter Jose Vidro continues to be plagued by a bad right knee. Vidro underwent another MRI this week, the results of which could lead to more surgery for the 31-year-old.

In fact, Washington suddenly has a glut of second basemen, with Anderson joining Junior Spivey, Jamey Carroll and recently signed veteran Damian Jackson. The Nationals won’t have room for all of them on their Opening Day roster, so look for Bowden to start aggressively shopping Spivey and Carroll.

“When you don’t want to trade from the farm system, you’ve got to have depth,” Bowden said. “I think we’ve built some depth in the infield and outfield that allows us to make some trades.”

All of this comes as the Nationals charge forward with little certainty about their future. With no timetable for the sale of the club from Major League Baseball to one of eight competing bidders, Bowden continues to work without a concrete budget.

Bowden, who on Thursday learned he will be given a second interview with the Boston Red Sox for their GM position, now appears to be closer to a decision on the fate of manager Frank Robinson and his coaching staff.

Bowden spoke at length yesterday with club president Tony Tavares about that pending issue and others. He declined to comment on their discussions, other than to say “we’re making progress,” but a decision on Robinson and the rest of the staff could be finalized in the next week or two.

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