Nats’ buzz at meetings is change of strategy

INDIANAPOLIS | The Washington Nationals began the winter meetings by making the first trade. They finished the meetings by shipping off a player they never possessed to complete it.

In between, they became the scourge of the game by signing a past-his-prime catcher to a two-year deal and got their chance to mutter similar complaints when the market for the veteran pitcher they were seeking shot far past anyone’s expectations.

In other words, they were right in the thick of the activity. And that, in and of itself, is a change.

The Nationals’ front office packed up at the conclusion of the winter meetings Thursday having generated more activity - and buzz - than any session in the past few years. Unlike 2007 - when former general manager Jim Bowden made a series of trades for reclamation projects or unproven prospects - and last year - when their futile pursuit of Mark Teixeira was the only substantive activity they generated - the Nationals gave strong signals they were ready to pursue a different course.

The signing of 38-year-old catcher Ivan Rodriguez caused drew scorn, both for the terms of the deal ($6 million over two years, which sent every other catcher looking for a multiyear contract) and the idea that Rodriguez, who posted a .280 on-base percentage last year, can still play every day.

But the move is definitely a sign the Nationals are no longer trading on potential alone. So is their pursuit of a veteran starter such as Joel Pineiro, Jon Garland, Vicente Padilla or Jason Marquis, each of whom could cost them more than $25 million over three seasons.

“We came in with a checklist of things to try and accomplish over the course of the offseason,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “We’re far from finished, but we think this was a good starting point. We feel good about it.”

Rodriguez, who will be introduced in a news conference Friday afternoon, was the Nationals’ most newsworthy signing. They also made a trade with the New York Yankees to acquire reliever Brian Bruney, who they think can be a late-game option. The Nationals drafted Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Jamie Hoffmann with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft and sent him to the Yankees to complete the deal.

And besides the Rodriguez news conference, the next few days figure to bring more activity.

The Nationals likely will nontender catcher Wil Nieves on Saturday and could make the same decision with left-hander Scott Olsen, who will make at least $2.24 million in arbitration after coming back from shoulder surgery. They also will continue pursuit of the veteran pitcher they were chasing for most of the winter meetings, though that could stretch well into January.

The Milwaukee Brewers gave free agent Randy Wolf a three-year, $29.75 million deal, and the Texas Rangers followed with a one-year, $7.5 million deal and an $11 million club option for free agent Rich Harden. Those two contracts served quick notice the recession wouldn’t depress the market for free agents, and it means the Nationals likely will have to overpay to get the starter they want.

“We’re engaged with a lot of agents on a lot of pitchers,” Rizzo said. “We’re trying to find the best guy that fits the ability level we’re looking at. I think it’s going to take a little bit of time. As always happens when a few pitchers start falling, it’s usually a domino effect.”

Even in the Rule 5 draft, the Nationals were one of baseball’s most active teams, picking three players in addition to Hoffmann and losing four as former scouting director Dana Brown - now with the Toronto Blue Jays - grabbed two players for his new team.

In the Class AAA phase of the draft, Washington added Chicago White Sox right-hander Arismendy Mota, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Michael Wlodarczyk and Houston Astros outfield Nicholas Moresi. Mota, though, is likely to be traded to the Chicago Cubs.

The Nationals’ most notable loss was Class AAA Syracuse reliever Zech Zinicola, thought at one point to be the team’s closer of the future. He had a 5.33 ERA at two levels last season, but Brown, who picked Zinicola in 2006, wanted to bring him to Toronto. Brown also grabbed right-hander Ruben De La Rosa in the Class AAA phase of the draft. The Mariners took right-hander Terrence Engles in the Class AAA phase, and the Mets took right-hander Johan Figuereo in the Class AA phase.

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