- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Washington Nationals threw two more names into an already overcrowded mix of starting rotation candidates yesterday when they signed free-agent pitchers Jerome Williams and Brandon Claussen.

Williams, who received a major league contract worth $500,000 if he makes the team, and Claussen, who received a minor league deal worth $650,000 if he makes it, join a consortium of at least eight other pitchers who will fight for four open rotation spots this spring.

General manager Jim Bowden, though, was more than willing to take a chance on both pitchers, who have seen their once-promising careers sidetracked but remain young enough to be intriguing.

“There’s no guarantee that either one of them can reach their potential, but we’re going to work hard to try to accomplish that,” Bowden said. “It’s a low-risk gamble. If it doesn’t work out, we’re not out anything.”

Williams, 25, is the more accomplished of the two pitchers. He is 23-24 with a 4.03 ERA in parts of four seasons with the Giants and Cubs. A 10-game winner in 2004 with San Francisco, the right-hander struggled with his command and confidence in Chicago and spent most of last season in the minors before being claimed off waivers by the Oakland Athletics, who then didn’t offer him a contract this winter.

Pursued by several other teams, Williams ultimately chose the Nationals because of the team’s willingness to offer him a major league contract (even if it’s not guaranteed) and a legitimate chance to make the Opening Day rotation.

“We need to work on his command, continue to tighten up his breaking ball,” Bowden said. “But certainly he’s got the potential.”

On first glance, it would appear Williams will enter camp with a leg up on many of the other rotation contenders, particularly those who were only offered minor league deals. But team sources said the right-hander’s contract status doesn’t leave him in any better standing than any other pitchers.

Claussen, 27, also has established himself as a viable big leaguer, going 10-11 with a 4.21 ERA with the Cincinnati Reds in 2005. But the former top New York Yankees prospect struggled mightily last season, complained of shoulder pain and had surgery in August to repair a partially torn rotator cuff.

Knowing Claussen wouldn’t be healthy enough to pitch again until June or July at the earliest, the Reds decided not to offer him a contract last month, making him a free agent. The Nationals scooped him up with a minor league deal, and though he’ll spend the first half of the season on the disabled list, he could eventually prove valuable if healthy.

“Just the fact that he’s left-handed and 27, and he’s already won 10 games in the big leagues,” Bowden said. “If we can get him healthy and he reaches that potential, it’s a worthwhile gamble.”

Washington doesn’t figure to add any more names to the rotation mix before camp opens Feb. 13 in Viera, Fla. With only John Patterson assured of a job, at least 10 pitchers will battle for the four remaining spots. Right-handers Tim Redding, Colby Lewis and Jason Simontacchi join Williams as newcomers with major league experience in the running. Holdovers Mike O’Connor, Shawn Hill and Billy Traber, plus minor leaguers Beltran Perez, Matt Chico and Joel Hanrahan also will receive strong consideration.

“In our situation, we want to bring in as many young starters as we can, and they’ll all compete,” Bowden said. “The only pitcher we have that has a sure spot in our rotation is a healthy John Patterson. After that, we can’t have enough competition.”

Note — The Nationals have hired Lee Kuntz as their new head athletic trainer. Kuntz, who spent the last four seasons as the Cleveland Indians’ minor league rehabilitation coordinator, replaces Tim Abraham, who resigned last month after two seasons with the team.

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