- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Jim Bowden, who said he would approach the interim general manager’s position with the Washington baseball club aggressively, delivered on that pledge yesterday by signing two free agents, third baseman Vinny Castilla and shortstop Cristian Guzman, to multi-year deals for a total of $23million.

Bowden has maintained that shortstop and third base would be a priority in his offseason acquisitions. The signings of Guzman, the Minnesota Twins’ regular shortstop for six seasons, and Castilla, who led the National League in RBI this past season with 131 for the Colorado Rockies, fills those needs.

“Now we have a very strong defensive infield,” Bowden said. “When you are trying to develop so many young pitchers, you have to be able to catch the ball and have good range. It helps those pitchers have much better success.”

Meanwhile, MLB.com reported yesterday that Frank Robinson will return as manager. The former Baltimore Orioles great and Hall of Fame outfielder had a 233-253 record the last three years with the Expos. The club finished 83-79 in each of his first two seasons before falling to fifth in the National League East last season with a 67-95 record.

Robinson welcomes the signings that give Washington a solid regular infield if second baseman Jose Vidro and first baseman Nick Johnson are healthy after injury-plagued 2004 seasons.

Bowden said he has a conference call scheduled today with Vidro, the three-time All-Star second baseman who is recovering from September knee surgery to repair recurring tendinitis in his right knee, to determine how his rehabilitation has been progressing.

“We want to do our homework and do everything we can to make sure all our players are physically as 100 percent as we can get them,” Bowden said.

The terms of both deals yesterday — Castilla got a two-year, $6.2million contract and Guzman a four-year, $16.8million pact, according to Major League Baseball sources — demonstrate Bowden is building a roster without feeling restrained by the uncertainty regarding the franchise’s ownership. The club is currently owned by the 29 major league owners and might not be sold for months.

Bowden said neither contract is particularly burdensome and noted both fit into the Expos payroll this past season in Montreal, which was about $42million. The payroll budget is expected to be higher, based on the anticipated increased revenues.

The deals are the first significant free-agent signings this offseason and come in a market that is expected to drag on into January because of the uncertainty surrounding a group of high-profile players controlled by agent Scott Boras: Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek.

Bowden said he did not want to wait to see how the market shook out because he felt Guzman then might cost more than Washington could pay.

Guzman, 26, earned $3.7million last season. He is a switch-hitter with a career batting average of .266, plus 39 home runs, 289 RBI and 102 stolen bases in 841 games.

Guzman batted .274 last season, with 31 doubles, eight home runs, 46 RBI, 10 stolen bases and 84 runs scored. His best offensive season came in 2001, when he hit .302 with 10 home runs, 51 RBI and 25 stolen bases for the Twins.

Defensively, Guzman ranked second among American League shortstops in 2004 with a .983 fielding percentage and also ranked fourth in the majors among shortstops with 103 double plays while playing on artificial turf at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

Castilla, 37, hit .271 with 35 home runs and 131 RBI for Colorado, and Bowden noted 21 of those homers came away from hitter-friendly Coors Field. Castilla is a career .280 hitter, with 303 home runs and 1,012 RBI in 1,625 games in 14 seasons.

A two-time All-Star, Castilla lead all big league third basemen with a .987 fielding percentage last season and committed the fewest errors (six) among major league third baseman starting at least 100 games.

Bowden said Castilla’s experience, as well as his numbers, played a role in the decision to sign him.

“One of the things Frank Robinson identified in discussions with me was that the team didn’t have any veteran leadership,” Bowden said. “I have been around young teams that didn’t have that veteran leadership, and they didn’t develop as quickly as teams that did.”

The GM will now likely concentrate on improving the club’s bullpen, focusing on strong middle relief pitching.

Meanwhile, club officials announced the purchase of infielder Alejandro Machado from their Class AA Harrisburg club. Machado, 22, hit a combined .306 with 15 doubles, six triples, five home runs, 45 RBI and 30 stolen bases for Harrisburg (93 games) and Class A Brevard County last season.

Acquired earlier this year from Milwaukee in a minor league deal, Machado led all Expos minor leaguers with 163 hits. He also ranked among Expos minor league leaders in stolen bases (30, tied for first with Jerry Owens) and batting (fourth at .306).

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