- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2006

They aren’t yet on a level playing field with the rest of baseball’s traditionally run franchises, but the Washington Nationals are inching their way toward it, which may explain why club officials were so ecstatic yesterday to sign catcher Brian Schneider to a four-year, $16 million contract.

The wherewithal to commit to that kind of multiyear extension, which in this case locks up Schneider through the 2009 season, simply did not exist for general manager Jim Bowden when the Nationals first arrived in Washington a year ago.

“When the organization signs core players like Brian Schneider, I think it’s very important to retain them and not lose them through free agency,” Bowden said. “To be able to come into Washington and to be able to have the revenue to do some of the things we were not able to do when they were the Montreal Expos is very positive for the franchise.”

Schneider, who was not due to become a free agent until 2008, is the first arbitration-eligible player signed long term by the Nationals organization since Major League Baseball took control in 2002.

Washington also avoided arbitration with Nick Johnson yesterday, signing the first baseman to a one-year, $3.2 million contract. The club could not come to terms with recently acquired slugger Alfonso Soriano, and the two sides formally exchanged arbitration figures last night per league rules.

There was no doubt in Bowden’s mind that Schneider, 29, deserved a multiyear contract that will pay him $2.7 million this season, $3.5 million in 2007 and $4.9 million in both 2008 and 2009.

“He’s not a player I’d like to have to compete on the free agent market for, because he’s so special,” Bowden said. “So I think this is a deal that needed to be done. I don’t think it could have waited.”

Schneider, who made $2 million last season, threw out 37.7 percent of opposing basestealers to lead the National League for the third-straight year. He hit .268 with 10 homers and 44 RBI, and team officials believe his offensive numbers will continue to improve.

With close friend Brad Wilkerson now playing in Texas after being traded for Soriano, Schneider is one of the few remaining Nationals players with ties dating to the franchise’s days in Montreal.

“This is the only organization I’ve been with,” said Schneider, who was drafted by the Expos in 1995. “This is a great opportunity for baseball in D.C., and I’d love to be a part of that. I’ve been here since Day One, and I’d like to be here my whole career if possible.”

Before finalizing the deal late Monday night, the Nationals had Schneider examined by team doctors. He had to be shut down in September because of a sore right shoulder, but the club’s medical staff gave him a clean bill of health, and Schneider said he has been throwing without pain for the last two weeks.

In fact, Bowden gave his blessing to Schneider to participate in this spring’s World Baseball Classic. Schneider is one of six catchers on the United States’ preliminary 60-man roster, and he appears to have an outside shot at making the squad.

“I’m going to do what’s smart,” he said. “If my shoulder’s not completely there, obviously I’m going to say no, and I’m going to worry about the Nationals. That’s my No. 1 priority. But hopefully everything’s going to be great and I’ll be able to go over there and represent our country.”

The Nationals went down to the wire before signing Schneider and Johnson before yesterday’s arbitration deadline. Johnson, in his final year of arbitration eligibility, more than doubled his 2005 salary ($1.45 million) after hitting a career-high .289 with 15 homers and 74 RBI.

Washington, though, made no real attempt to sign Johnson to a long-term deal, perhaps because of the player’s injury history. The 27-year-old hasn’t played in more than 131 games in any of his five major league seasons, and with that in mind, his new contract includes incentives should he appear in more than 130 games.

Johnson will be a free agent at the end of the season, as will Soriano, who could be headed for arbitration.

Bowden said he and agent Diego Bentz spoke Monday night and twice yesterday but could not come to terms on a contract. The two sides formally exchanged arbitration figures last night. The Nationals offered $10 million, while Soriano asked for $12 million. The 30-year-old made $7.5 million last season with the Rangers, when he hit .268 with 36 homers, 104 RBI and 30 stolen bases.

A hearing before an independent arbiter will be scheduled sometime from Feb. 1 to 20.

Bowden said Soriano’s well-publicized opposition to the Nationals’ plan to move him from second base to the outfield had no bearing on contract talks. The two sides have agreed to resolve that issue once a contract is signed.

“We don’t want it to be a soap opera through the media,” Bowden said. “We’re very sensitive to his feelings and his desires. We’re also very sensitive to how we think we can build a baseball team the best we possibly can.”

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