- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

Few teams will descend upon Orlando, Fla., for this week’s Winter Meetings with an objective as precise as the Washington Nationals.

The Nationals need pitching, lots of it, and general manager Jim Bowden likely will spend most of his time at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort looking to acquire reliable arms that can be used to fill out a starting rotation that has only one given: John Patterson.

But Bowden faces a daunting task in his quest for pitchers. The market for free agents is thin and incredibly expensive. Team president Stan Kasten has said it doesn’t make sense to pursue top-tier free agents this winter and Washington has precious few commodities it can afford to trade in exchange for arms.

That leads most observers around baseball to believe the Nationals will stay out of the limelight at this week’s meetings while other teams fork over millions of dollars for free agents or pull off blockbuster trades.

There’s certainly reason to believe that will be the case based on this offseason’s events to date. While the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have shelled out $136 million and $100 million respectively for Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee, the rebuilding Nationals have watched with mouths agape. Kasten and Bowden never intended to spend that much on any player, but the immense size of those two contracts could have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the free-agent market, and that could make life even more difficult for Washington.

Hitters aren’t the only players receiving huge paydays. Run-of-the-mill pitchers are cashing in themselves (witness right-hander Adam Eaton, who just got $24.5 million for three years from the Philadelphia Phillies despite posting a 5.12 ERA in 13 starts last season with the Texas Rangers).

The only way the Nationals are going to improve their pitching staff through free agency is either to overspend for a middle-of-the-rotation veteran or wait a month to sign some bargain-basement pitchers and hope one or two of them pitches well.

Recent history suggests Bowden will take the latter route. He has done precisely that the last two winters to varying degrees of success. It worked in 2005 with Esteban Loaiza. It failed a year ago with Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr. and Pedro Astacio.

Because such plans of attack are risky at best, ultimately the Nationals might conclude they need to get creative in order to improve their pitching staff, which could lead to four manic days of trade talk this week at the meetings.

Bowden has never been shy to pull the trigger on unconventional deals. A year ago, he dealt Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and Armando Galarraga to the Rangers for Soriano in a late-night trade that shook up the Winter Meetings in Dallas. It’s doubtful Bowden will make a splash quite that big this time around, but he still could manage to come home with a No. 2 starter if he can find a willing trade partner.

The Nationals don’t have much to offer in return, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare. They have a glut of middle infielders and wouldn’t hesitate to deal one of them (preferably second baseman Jose Vidro) in exchange for pitching if given the opportunity.

Vidro is still owed $16 million over the next two years, and that will be a major hindrance in any trade discussion. But if Bowden is willing to take on some of Vidro’s contract, or if he’s willing to include a younger, cheaper, more promising player (perhaps outfielder Ryan Church) in the deal, perhaps he can find a willing dance partner and acquire that pitcher Washington so desperately needs.

Note — The Nationals have offered salary arbitration to Jose Guillen, a bit of a surprise considering few expected the veteran outfielder to return after an injury-marred season. Guillen has until Thursday to accept the one-year offer or become a free agent and shop himself around. If he signs elsewhere as a “Type B” free agent, Washington will receive an extra 2007 draft pick in between the first and second rounds.

The Nationals did not offer arbitration to fellow free agents Ortiz, Armas and utilityman Robert Fick and thus will not receive compensation if any of them re-sign.

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