Upholding their pledge to become major players in Latin America, the Washington Nationals yesterday signed four players from the Dominican Republic, including a 17-year-old left-hander they believe could crack their starting rotation in the future.
Lefty Randy Almonte, along with 16-year-olds Marcos Frias, Ricardo Martinez and Francisco Vizcaino, all agreed to terms on professional contracts with the Nationals, who are working toward rebuilding their franchise.
"When I first came in, they had a budget of zero," general manager Jim Bowden said. "After discussions with them, we were able to reallocate some dollars for Latin America. We started. We walked. I think now we're jogging. And eventually, we'll be sprinting."
None of the four new acquisitions compares with shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez, who received a $1.4 million bonus when he signed with Washington last summer, but all were being pursued by other teams. The foursome was chosen out of a field of about 50 Dominican players who tried out in front of manager Manny Acta last month at the team's San Cristobal Academy.
Almonte is the highest rated of the bunch. A 6-foot-6 left-hander with an above-average fastball, he's likely to come to the United States and participate in minor league spring training this year.
Scouting director Dana Brown and assistant GM Mike Rizzo will travel to Venezuela tomorrow to scout five more young players.
First baseman Nick Johnson, who broke his right leg Sept. 23, is still walking with a limp and may not be ready for Opening Day. Johnson has been rehabbing at his California home and will begin performing baseball activities once he arrives at spring training next month. Team officials should have a better feel then for his projected return, though Bowden said he may still look to sign an affordable replacement first baseman in case Johnson isn't ready.
"I can't tell you if he's going to be there Opening Day," Bowden said. "I can't tell you if he's going to be there May 1 or June 1, for that matter. I don't think we'll know until he gets on the field."
Meanwhile, outfielder Alex Escobar, recovering from a separated shoulder, was examined by specialist James Andrews yesterday. Escobar should be able to serve as a designated hitter during early spring training games and start playing the outfield by mid-March.
Reliever Luis Ayala, who missed all of 2006 after having Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, should be ready for spring training.
Bowden said he may still look to sign "one or two" more low-level pitchers before spring training, but he doesn't expect the skyrocketing free agent market to come down much between now and then. The Nationals already expect to have at least 37 pitchers in camp, with 10 or more starters vying for four open rotation spots behind ace John Patterson. ...
The Nationals will announce plans this week to hold a Winter Caravan on Jan. 22-29. Acta and assorted players will travel throughout the region for community-related events and autograph signings. ...
Pitchers and catchers are due to report to spring training Feb. 13, with position players reporting five days later.