Shortstop Clayton signs with Nationals

The Washington Nationals gave incumbent shortstop Cristian Guzman some spring training competition.

Yesterday, the Nationals signed veteran shortstop Royce Clayton to a non-guaranteed minor league contract and invited him to spring training. Terms of Clayton’s contract were unavailable, but if the 36-year-old Clayton makes the team, it is believed he will earn around $1 million.

In addition, the Nationals signed veteran reliever Felix Rodriguez to a non-guaranteed, one-year, incentives-laden $600,000 deal and outfielder George Lombard to a minor league contract with a spring training invitation.

After Guzman struggled mightily last year in his first season in the National League, the Nationals wanted insurance at the position. The club is hoping Clayton still has enough left in what would be his 16th major league season.

Last year, the switch-hitting Guzman batted .219 for the Arizona Diamondbacks, the lowest average among starting shortstops in baseball. Before last season, Guzman signed a four-year, $16.8 million deal and promptly turned in his worst season in the majors.

“We can’t watch what we watched all last year at shortstop,” Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said. “If Guzman plays like he did last year, [Clayton] gives us a viable option. Guzman is our starting shortstop. This gives Clayton an opportunity to compete with Guzman.”

Nationals manager Frank Robinson was unable to bench Guzman last season for an extended time because the club did not have a capable backup. Jamey Carroll, a versatile infielder, played more second base than shortstop last season because of Jose Vidro’s assortment of injuries. However, Carroll still managed to start five games at short.

Clayton’s signing creates a logjam of middle infielders for the Nationals with Carroll and offseason acquisitions Damian Jackson and Marlon Anderson also competing for three bench spots. Despite being a Robinson favorite, Carroll’s job could be in jeopardy with Jackson, who can also play the outfield, and Anderson, who is a superb pinch-hitter and hit .321 in that role last season for the New York Mets.

Clayton, an NL All-Star in 1997 with the St. Louis Cardinals, is a career .258 hitter. Last season with the Diamondbacks, Clayton made only 11 errors in 141 games (.982 fielding percentage, fifth among all shortstops). Clayton hit .270 with two home runs, 44 RBI and 28 doubles and stole 13 bases in 16 attempts.

In other news, the Nationals out-righted right-hander Francis Beltran to Class AAA New Orleans. Beltran did not pitch last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his pitching arm during spring training.

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