- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Washington Nationals beefed up their pitching staff yesterday by signing veteran right-hander Esteban Loaiza and right-handed reliever Antonio Osuna to free agent contracts.

After missing out on more desirable starters Odalis Perez and Jaret Wright, the Nationals signed Loaiza to a one-year, $2.9 million deal with an option for a second year. Loaiza, 33, likely will become the team’s No. 2 starter behind ace Livan Hernandez.

Osuna, 31, went 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA last season for the San Diego Padres. Osuna, who signed a one-year, nonguaranteed contract, posted an 0.53 ERA in 13 September and October contests last season during the Padres’ failed playoff run.

By signing Loaiza and Osuna, the Nationals nearly have reached their budgeted $50 million salary for this season. Still, Nationals interim general manager Jim Bowden did not rule out making more personnel moves before the opening of spring training next month in Viera, Fla.

“I don’t think you’re ever done trying to improve the club,” Bowden said. “You continue to find ways to get better. With more pitching depth, you have a better chance to compete.”

To create room for Loaiza and Osuna on the 40-man roster, the Nationals designated outfielder Brandon Watson and right-handed pitcher Sun-Woo Kim for assignment.

The Nationals are gambling they signed the Loaiza from 2003 and not the one from 2004. Two years ago, he went 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA with the Chicago White Sox. Last year, however, Loaiza finished 10-7 with a 5.70 ERA, including 1-2 with a 8.50 after getting traded to the Yankees.

“OK, if he’s a gamble, then everybody’s a gamble,” Loaiza’s agent John Boggs said. “He’s a proven pitcher. He’s won 21 games.”

Boggs said Loaiza was offered more money by another club, but Loaiza preferred the opportunity with a new franchise in a new city. Loaiza, who finished second behind Toronto’s Roy Halladay in the 2003 Cy Young Award voting, is a two-time All-Star with a record of 100-89 and a 4.70 ERA in 10 major league seasons with Pittsburgh, Texas, Toronto, the White Sox and Yankees.

According to Boggs, Loaiza struggled because of fatigue last season. But after the Yankees jettisoned him to the bullpen, he was able to get some rest and allowed just one run in 82/3 innings in the AL playoffs.

“It proved our theory correct that he needed a rest, and he had a very good showing in the playoffs,” Boggs said. “Entering the season, he had ramped up a lot of innings and was big on the banquet circuit, getting pulled left and right. By the All-Star break, he was pretty fatigued. One thing about Loaiza, he’s a gamer. He’s going to take the ball and pitch.”

The Nationals are confident Loaiza can pitch more than 180 innings this season and be a veteran presence in the clubhouse to help tutor the team’s young arms. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Tijuana native ranks second all time among Mexican-born pitchers with 100 career wins. Only Fernando Valenzuela (173 wins) has more.

“Esteban Loaiza has pitched 180 or more innings four of the last five years,” Bowden said. “We were looking to find a pitcher to help get more innings to our staff. With [Luis] Ayala, [Chad] Cordero and Osuna, we think we have three relievers who will have ERAs in the low twos.”

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