- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | Shawn Hill sat at his locker in the visiting clubhouse in Jupiter, Fla., on Monday afternoon and spoke about his pitching career in the kind of upbeat terms he hadn’t used in several years.

“Something’s changed,” Hill said after pitching a scoreless inning and experiencing no pain in his right arm. “I don’t know what it is, but something has changed for the better.”

The Washington Nationals didn’t share Hill’s optimistic outlook. On Wednesday, the club placed him on waivers for the purpose of his unconditional release, effectively ending his nine-year career with the franchise.

Despite the right-hander’s recent positive outlook, the Nationals decided his lengthy history of arm trouble wasn’t worth the risk any longer. By releasing Hill, the club is responsible for only one-sixth of his $775,000 salary (about $129,000). Had the Nationals released the 27-year-old after Wednesday but before Opening Day, he would have been entitled to one-fourth of his salary (about $194,000).

Nationals manager Manny Acta described the release as a “baseball decision.” Acting general manager Mike Rizzo said Hill’s strong performance on the mound earlier in the week had to be weighed against his long history of arm troubles.

“He looked like he was throwing free and easy [Monday],” Rizzo said. “He looked like he was healthy at this time, yes. But with the track record, we just didn’t know when and how long we could count on him being healthy. That’s how the decision was made.”

Long considered a potential future ace of the staff, Hill never could stay off the disabled list enough to pitch and earn that title. He made only 37 major league starts over the last five years, going 7-15 with a 4.93 ERA. Over that same span, he made four trips to the disabled list and missed all of 2005 following Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

Despite persistent and mysterious pain in his forearm last season, Hill was determined to try to pitch his way through it. But after 12 ragged starts, he was shut down for the rest of the year. He had minor surgery in September to clean out his elbow and came to spring training feeling as if he had turned a major corner.

But after his first exhibition start earlier this month, Hill reported forearm pain again. The Nationals sent him to orthopedist James Andrews for an examination that revealed only inflammation, no structural damage. So Hill gave it another shot this week. He pitched a scoreless inning Monday against the Florida Marlins and said he felt no arm discomfort for the first time in more than two years.

“There’s a difference,” he said. “I don’t know if it was a couple days of rest, treatment, doing massage to break up the scar tissue. There’s something different.”

Acta told Hill, who didn’t return a message left for him, that he would have a spot in the Opening Day rotation if healthy. Given that, he didn’t take the news well when he was summoned into Acta’s office early Wednesday.

“He’s been here his whole life, and this is where he wants to be,” Acta said. “It wasn’t easy for him or for me. But he’ll be fine. He’s going to move on and he’ll be fine.”

Any of baseball’s 29 other clubs are free to claim Hill off waivers and assume the remainder of his contract. If he passes through unclaimed, he will become a free agent and could return to the Nationals on a minor league contract.

Hill’s release does clear up Washington’s projected rotation two weeks before the club breaks camp and heads north. Acta has said three starters are guaranteed jobs: John Lannan (whom he formally named Opening Day starter Wednesday), Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera.

The fourth spot is Jordan Zimmermann’s to lose. The rookie right-hander, who has not allowed a run in 121/3 innings this spring, is lined up to start the Nationals’ fourth game of the season April 10 at Atlanta.

Fellow rookies Collin Balester and Shairon Martis remain in the running for the final rotation job, though Washington won’t need a fifth starter until late April because of several off days scheduled for the first two weeks of the season.

Members of the pitching staff were more concerned Wednesday with Hill’s fate.

“No one realizes how hard [Hill] worked to stay healthy and how long he was in the training room trying to get that pain away,” Lannan said. “I don’t even know what happened. I talked to him this morning before it happened. I don’t know. It just [stinks].”

c Staff writer Ben Goessling contributed to this article.

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