- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals’ wide-open competition for starting rotation spots may soon have another name thrown into the mix: Pedro Astacio.

The Nationals have offered the 36-year-old right-hander a non-guaranteed, minor-league contract to report to spring training, and baseball sources said he’s expected to decide between the Nationals and San Diego Padres within 48 hours.

One club source put the odds on Astacio signing with the Nationals at 50-50. If he chooses to return to San Diego, where last year he went 4-2 with a 3.17 ERA in 12 appearances, Major League Baseball’s complex rules would prevent him from pitching until May 1.

Nationals officials believe that fact gives them an advantage over the Padres. With Washington, Astacio would be allowed to come to camp immediately and compete for a spot in the rotation.

“We’ve had several discussions with him,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “It would be a minor-league deal, and he’d have to come in and make the team. He’d have to compete with these other guys. But we like competition.”

Steve Schneider, Astacio’s agent, did not return messages yesterday.

The Nationals have had their eye on Astacio all winter and believe he could win one of the three rotation spots up for grabs this spring. They came to Florida with five right-handers in the mix — Brian Lawrence, Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas Jr., Ryan Drese and Jon Rauch — but manager Frank Robinson has said none is guaranteed a spot on the 25-man roster.

Lawrence, who is due to earn $3.5 million this season, has appeared to be the closest thing to a lock among the quintet. But he’s off to a rough start this spring after experiencing stiffness in his throwing shoulder.

The 29-year-old played catch yesterday but was unable to pitch his scheduled bullpen session and said he’s probably a few days from being ready to resume full activities.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to extend it out tomorrow playing catch and then get on the field the day after that,” he said. “I’m just a little slow getting into it, but it’ll be there.”

Bowden said Lawrence’s shoulder injury didn’t prompt him to pursue Astacio, but the timing certainly could put pressure on Lawrence and the other rotation candidates to step up.

“We’ve been interested in Pedro from the beginning,” Bowden said. “The more choices you have, the better chance you have of a couple of them stepping up and making up for [the loss of Esteban] Loaiza, [last year’s No. 3 starter].”

Astacio, who is 124-119 with a 4.61 ERA in a 14-year career with seven different teams, has experienced his share of ups and downs. He missed most of the 2004 season after undergoing shoulder surgery, then was released by the Texas Rangers last June after opening the season 2-8 with a 6.04 ERA.

But after signing a minor-league deal with the Padres, Astacio caught fire, holding opponents to two earned runs or fewer in nine of his 10 starts and led the club to its National League West division-clinching win during the season’s final weekend.

“I was very impressed with the way he pitched down the stretch,” Bowden said. “I mean, he was their second-best pitcher after [ace Jake] Peavy down the stretch.”

Despite his late-season upturn, Astacio had few suitors this winter. Because he rejected the Padres’ arbitration offer, league rules required the two sides to come to terms by Jan. 8. Once that deadline passed, Astacio was no longer allowed to be on San Diego’s major-league roster until May 1.

A handful of other clubs, including the Nationals, expressed interest but none had come up with an offer to Astacio’s liking previously.

Got a question about the Nats?

Mark Zuckerman has the answers. The Times’ beat reporter for the

Nationals will respond to your questions on-line and in print each

Monday, beginning Feb. 27. Send questions to Mark at natsmailbag [AT] washingtontimes.com

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