The Washington Nationals pulled off two deals in the final hour before Major League Baseball’s 4 p.m. Eastern trade deadline, sending first baseman Nick Johnson to the Florida Marlins for left-handed prospect Andrew Thompson and reliever Joe Beimel to the Colorado Rockies for a pair of minor league pitchers.
Johnson, the last remaining Montreal Expos player who remained with the organization and relocated to Washington in 2005, was surprised by the news. He had been penciled in to play first base and bat fifth tonight against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and when no word of any deal was presented to him by 4 p.m., the 30-year-old assumed he was in the clear and went to go take batting practice in the underground cage at PNC Park.
Moments later, Johnson was informed of the trade, leading to some emotional moments with his teammates. He quickly showered, packed and left to catch a flight to South Florida to join his new team.
“At 4 o’clock, I went into the cage and didn’t think anything had happened,” he said. “And then I got the tap on my shoulder. … I’ve got a lot of friends on the team. But I’m going somewhere else. It’s about winning, and [the Marlins are] a good young team.”
Thompson, 22, was Florida’s first-round pick in the 2005 draft (22nd overall) and was rated the organization’s eighth-best prospect entering 2008 by Baseball America. He wasn’t among the club’s top 10 prospects entering this season, and was 5-9 with a 4.11 ERA in 20 starts for Class AA Jacksonville. Nationals acting general manager Mike Rizzo said Thompson, who will report to Class AA Harrisburg, “has a chance to be a middle-of-the-rotation guy in the near future.”
Beimel’s trade to Colorado was less-surprising because the veteran lefty did not figure into Washington’s future plans. The 32-year-old lefty was 1-5 with a 3.40 ERA in 45 appearances after signing a $2 million contract with the club during spring training.
Beimel hoped to help solidify the Nationals’ bullpen, but that unit struggled mightily early and was a key factor in the club’s woeful record.
“When I signed here … I didn’t think we’d set the world on fire and win the World Series or anything like that. But I thought we’d be pretty competitive in the division and put up a good fight,” he said. “That hasn’t happened ‘til recently. It was a pretty disappointing first half. But it’s one of those things that happens in baseball. They’ve made changes, and hopefully they can move forward and win some more games.”
The Nationals received two young right-handers (Ryan Mattheus and Robinson Fabian) in exchange for Beimel, but each is a project. Mattheus, 25, was seen as a top relief prospect but injured his elbow earlier this month and had Tommy John surgery three weeks ago. He won’t be ready to return until late 2010.
“We felt it was a risk worth taking,” Rizzo said.
Fabian, 23, is a former position player who converted to pitcher upon signing with the Rockies in 2003. He was 3-6 with a 6.24 ERA in 24 games at low-Class A this season and will report to Hagerstown to continue his development.
Despite interest from other clubs in Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, the Nationals were not willing to part with either outfielder, preferring to keep both players as part of their foundation moving forward.
Dunn will take over for Johnson at first base. The Nationals will play tonight with only 23 players but will announce two call-ups from Class AAA Syracuse — possibly outfielder Elijah Dukes and reliever Jorge Sosa — later tonight.
“We’re a team building. We’re not rebuilding. We’re not tearing down,” Rizzo said. “This is a team that, in my opinion, is not far away from being a good, solid team.”