- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The Washington Nationals traded right-hander Livan Hernandez, who threw the first pitch in team history, to the Arizona Diamondbacks yesterday for two pitching prospects — one of the most dramatic steps the team has taken so far to rebuild its barren farm system.

Hernandez, 31, was dealt for a pair of 23-year-old pitchers considered among the best in the Diamondbacks’ system: right-hander Garrett Mock and left-hander Matt Chico. Both are being assigned to Class AA Harrisburg and are projected to make it to the major leagues in 2008.

The trade will leave the Nationals’ already razor-thin starting rotation without its longtime stalwart for the rest of this season, but general manager Jim Bowden believes the short-term pain will pale in comparison with the potential long-term gain.

“Obviously, it is tough to trade Livan. We love Livan,” Bowden said. “But our goal isn’t to win tomorrow. Our goal realistically is to build a championship club, and when you do that, you have to make painful decisions that are not popular now so you can win later.”

Since his acquisition from the San Francisco Giants in 2003, Hernandez had been the most recognizable and successful member of the franchise’s pitching staff. He started both last season’s opener in Philadelphia and the subsequent home opener at RFK Stadium and was one of the team’s first All-Star selections.

But with the organization’s new owners stating their intentions to rebuild the team through a youth movement, Hernandez knew his time might be up, despite his strong desire to remain in Washington.

“It’s not surprising because I knew something could happen,” he said by phone. “Hey, it’s a business. … All my friends are here. It’s special. I love being here. I love the city. I love the fans. It’s something that’s going to surprise a lot of people. But I can’t do nothing about that.”

Statistically, Hernandez is in the midst of his worst season in the major leagues, owner of a 9-8 record and 5.34 ERA in 24 starts. But he has turned around his fortunes since the All-Star break, going 3-0 with a 3.27 ERA his last five starts, including a stellar seven-inning performance Sunday in San Diego.

That recent upswing, which has suggested Hernandez’s long-injured right knee is feeling better, helped convince contending teams he might be worth acquiring, even after last week’s non-waiver trade deadline passed.

“You don’t get two top pitching prospects like we were able to get if he hadn’t been pitching the way he has been pitching,” Bowden said.

The Nationals placed Hernandez on waivers Thursday, and the Diamondbacks claimed him. Washington then had the choice of pulling the right-hander back (and thus being unable to deal him the rest of the season) or trying to work out a trade with Arizona by yesterday.

Talks picked up considerably Sunday while Hernandez was pitching his gem against the Padres before the two sides finalized it yesterday morning. The Diamondbacks are now responsible for the rest of Hernandez’s 2006 salary (about $2.5million) plus his $7million salary in 2007, though the Nationals agreed to take on some of the money (believed to be less than $2million).

In return, Washington receives two prospects the team believes could become building blocks for a revamped rotation within the next two or three years. Both were third-round picks of the Diamondbacks, and both were drafted by Mike Rizzo, recently hired by the Nationals as assistant GM and vice president of baseball operations.

“I’ve known these guys for a long time, seen them pitch a lot,” Rizzo said. “I know the Diamondbacks’ system a lot, and these were two of the guys on our wish list.”

Mock, drafted in 2003 out of the University of Houston, is a 6-foot-4 right-hander whom Rizzo likened in body type to Roger Clemens. His numbers at Class AA Tennessee (4-8, 4.95 ERA) this season weren’t spectacular and he’s had control issues, but the Nationals are banking on his mid-90s fastball and 117/50 strikeout-to-walk ratio as signs he’s ready to take the next step and develop into a No.2 or 3 major league starter.

Chico, drafted in 2004 after leaving the baseball program at USC, has had more success this season, going a combined 10-6 with a 2.81 ERA in 23 starts between Class A and Class AA. He had already spent time the last two seasons at Class AA but realized success there only this year. With a fastball that reaches the low 90s, he’s looked at as a potential back-of-the-rotation starter or perhaps as a reliever.

Bowden said he immediately considers Mock and Chico as two of the organization’s top pitching prospects, joining this year’s first-round pick, Colten Willems, and Class A right-hander Collin Balester.

None of those young pitchers figures to sniff the major leagues for some time, though, certainly not this season. And with Hernandez now in Arizona, and John Patterson, Ryan Drese, Brian Lawrence, Zach Day, Mike O’Connor and Shawn Hill (who will have his injured throwing elbow examined today by specialist James Andrews) all on the disabled list, the Nationals’ rotation is dangerously thin.

For now, Washington will go with veteran right-handers Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr. and Pedro Astacio, plus left-hander Billy Traber (who was called up from Class AAA New Orleans over the weekend). The team will purchase the contract of reliever Chris Schroder from New Orleans today but will need to find a No.5 starter by Saturday, with right-hander Jason Bergmann a candidate for promotion.

The Nationals, though, were willing to strip down their current rotation if it means they have a chance to field a stronger one down the road.

“With our farm system in the situation that we all know it is in, we have to find ways to get it better, and get building blocks that we can win faster with,” Bowden said. “If you have a chance to get two 23-year-old starters who are already at Double-A … those are the kind of deals that you need to make in order for us to win.”

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