Monday, February 14, 2005

Jim Bowden continues to mold the Washington Nationals in his image, right up to the moment his team opens its inaugural spring training.

The Nationals’ interim general manager added two more apples of his eye to the organization yesterday, hiring 12-time All-Star shortstop Barry Larkin as a special assistant and trading for Chicago White Sox outfielder and one-time top prospect Alex Escobar.

The additions come just as players begin assembling for the club’s first spring training. Pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Fla., tomorrow, with the first official workout scheduled for Thursday.

Larkin will begin working for the Nationals today following his decision to retire after 19 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds. Bowden, who spent 10 of those years as Reds GM, had been trying for months to lure Larkin to Washington, originally as a backup infielder.

Once Larkin, 40, made it clear his playing days were done, Bowden settled for the next best thing and offered his former star a job in the front office.

“It might be better, actually,” Bowden said. “Every team that Barry’s been associated with he’s made better. Every young player he’s been in touch with has developed faster. He brings so much to the table as a leader and as a winner that I think our franchise is in much better shape with him joining our front office.”

Like Bob Boone and Jose Rijo, two other former Reds serving as special assistants to Bowden, Larkin will have a variety of responsibilities with the Nationals. In addition to helping scout potential draft picks and offering input on trades and signings, Larkin will spend time in uniform this spring working with Washington shortstop Cristian Guzman and the organization’s other infielders.

“He brings so many different things to the ballpark,” Bowden said. “We’re going to try to utilize all of them.”

A Cincinnati native who blossomed into a star with his hometown team, Larkin never has played or worked for another major league organization. Several clubs this winter offered him a chance to continue his playing career and add to an already impressive resume that includes a .295 batting average, 441 doubles, 76 triples, 198 home runs, 960 RBI and 379 stolen bases over 2,180 games.

Larkin, though, couldn’t see himself playing for another team besides the Reds and ultimately decided to retire and jump-start the next chapter of his baseball life by taking the job in Washington.

“I just thought that this was a way for me to get some exposure with a front office and do some things that I may possibly want to do in the future,” he told the Associated Press. “I’ve never been with another organization [than the Reds], so familiarity with Jim Bowden, Bob Boone and Jose Rijo, all of that made it very easy for me.”

Escobar once was as highly touted a player as Larkin — he was the Cleveland Indians’ key acquisition in their 2001 trade of Roberto Alomar to the New York Mets. But the 26-year-old outfielder has been plagued by injuries his entire career and is joining his fourth organization in 3 years.

Bowden always has been intrigued by the Escobar, at one time rated the Mets’ top prospect, and was willing to acquire him from the White Sox in exchange for minor league outfielder Jerry Owens.

Escobar is said to have recovered from the broken right foot that led to his release from the Indians last summer. The White Sox signed him shortly thereafter, but he spent the rest of the 2004 season on the disabled list. In 92 career major league games, he owns a .229 batting average, nine homers and 34 RBI.

If healthy this spring, Escobar will have a chance to make the Nationals’ Opening Day roster and could work his way into the starting outfield alongside Brad Wilkerson and Jose Guillen.

“I don’t know that we can keep him healthy; no one else seems to have been able to do it,” Bowden said. “But I know it’s worth the gamble to try. He’s a special talent.”

Though it appears on the surface that Washington gave up a lot for Escobar in Owens, the organization’s 2003 second-round draft pick, club officials didn’t project the 24-year-old speedster as anything more than a fifth outfielder. In 108 games at Class A Savannah last season, Owens hit .292 with one homer, 37 RBI and 30 stolen bases.

To make room for Escobar on the 40-man roster, the Nationals designated infielder Alejandro Machado for assignment.

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