- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Washington Nationals’ contract with the Class AAA New Orleans Zephyrs has expired and team officials will hold discussions during the next few weeks on what step to take next. Ideally, the Nationals would like their top farm team to be closer to the District.

“Right now, we’re examining all alternatives, and until we have something to say on that, there’s nothing more I can say,” Nationals president Stan Kasten said. “It’s my first year here, so I have to see what the alternatives are and how the situation is there [in New Orleans].”

Kasten’s goal is to build the team’s farm system and develop young talent from within the organization and try to avoid signing high-priced free agents. That may also extend to the cities where the prospects play. Any player who is called up from New Orleans takes almost a full day to arrive.

According to reports, Columbus, Ohio; Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pa.; and Norfolk may be available for the Nationals. The New York Yankees are reportedly ending their 28-year affiliation with the Columbus Clippers and want to align with another Class AAA team.

The Philadelphia Phillies, who had an affiliate at Scranton-Wilkes Barre through this season, are expected to sign on with the Ottawa Lynx (the Baltimore Orioles Class AAA affiliate) before moving to a new franchise in Allentown, Pa., in 2008. The Yankees and New York Mets both would like their top farm teams to be closer to New York.

Norfolk, which is about a four-hour drive from Washington, might be a better situation for the Nationals than New Orleans. The Mets use Norfolk as their Class AAA team.

“There are good reasons for a geographical proximity, but that’s not a be-all or end-all,” Kasten said. “I wouldn’t take a bad situation that was closer over a good situation that was farther.”

Kasten added that the Nationals are not interested in buying their own Class AAA affiliate at this time, but would not rule it out in the future.

Ayala throws

Setup man Luis Ayala will rehab the rest of the season with the Nationals. Ayala, who had season-ending Tommy John elbow surgery, has been throwing on flat ground for about a month.

Before yesterday’s game, Ayala threw from about 65 feet to head athletic trainer Tim Abraham.

“He looked good today, it’s early in the game, it’s early in his rehab throwing program,” Abraham said. “He’s coming along according to plan.”

Ayala was unavailable for comment yesterday. Ayala injured his right elbow pitching for Mexico in the inaugural World Baseball Classic. Abraham said it’s too early to tell whether Ayala will be ready for the start of spring training in February.

Escobar upbeat

Injured center fielder Alex Escobar promises to be healthy by spring training, but his recovery time is projected to be between four to six months.

Escobar had season-ending shoulder surgery last week to repair a torn right labrum.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine by spring training, I don’t see why not,” Escobar said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there. If it’s not ready, there’s nothing I can do.”

Escobar becomes arbitration-eligible at the end of the season, but said he hasn’t spoken to anyone in the Nationals front office about his future. Escobar hit .356 with four home runs and 18 RBI in 33 games this season.



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