- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Chad Cordero is about to cash a check for more money than he ever dreamed he would see.

And it’s hard to tell.

Awarded a $4.15 million salary by a three-member arbitration panel on Wednesday, Cordero stood on a Washington Nationals practice field yesterday and said he has no plans to splurge on anything.

“Nothing right now,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “I’m going to try to save it, put it all in a bank and let it sit there until I figure out what to do with it.”

Fame and fortune clearly aren’t going to change this laid-back 24-year-old from Southern California. He might be one of baseball’s best closers, but he sure doesn’t act the part, at least not off the field.

Cordero, with 91 saves and a sparkling 2.61 career ERA has enough money now to buy a four-bedroom house in Beverly Hills. Cordero’s response? No, thanks. He’d much rather stay at his pad in Fullerton, Calif., where he can play Halo on his Xbox four hours a day and roast marshmallows at night on the fire pit he and his six roommates (all old college friends) built in the backyard.

“[My life] really hasn’t changed too much,” he said. “I’m still the same person I was before.”

And yet, he’s really not. A veteran of three full major league seasons, Cordero is by far the most-accomplished and most-reliable member of the Nationals’ pitching staff. He led the majors with 47 saves in 2005, followed that up with a respectable 29 saves last year and has positioned himself as one of the premier closers (young or old) in baseball.

“Chief’s got a lot of respect around the league,” manager Manny Acta said. “Chief, the last four years, has gotten to the point where guys know if we’re ahead in the ninth, even if he gets into a little jam, he gets it done. His name is up there.”

And he’s finally getting paid like his top contemporaries. Eligible for arbitration this winter for the first time in his career, Cordero nearly octupled his 2006 salary of $525,000 and now makes more than anyone on the roster other than Nick Johnson ($5.5 million) and Cristian Guzman ($4.2 million).

He could have had the security of a two-year deal (with a lower salary this season) offered by Washington general manager Jim Bowden but instead chose to take his chances in arbitration and emerged successful.

“It was very hard,” he said of turning down a two-year deal that could have been worth more than $8 million. “I didn’t know if I could do it. But me, my agents and the players’ association thought I had a good case [in arbitration]. I wasn’t going to come out a loser either way. If I lost my arbitration, it would still have been more money than I would have ever thought.”

There were times this winter when Cordero didn’t know if he would even be pitching in Washington this season. Trade rumors started circulating in December, with the Boston Red Sox interested in acquiring a closer and Bowden willing to listen to offers.

Why would the Nationals even consider dealing away a 24-year-old closer with a rock-solid track record? Because, as the theory goes, a team that’s not expected to compete for several years doesn’t need a closer and might prefer to pick up a couple of top minor leaguers instead.

But Bowden made it clear he wouldn’t trade Cordero unless he got cream-of-the-crop prospects in return, and Boston didn’t come close to offering that much.

The whole process caught Cordero off guard.

“I was surprised, but it’s flattering because someone else wants you,” he said. “It is flattering, but I hope I can stay here.”

So with that matter resolved, Cordero begins preparation for his fourth season with the Nationals. Despite his consistent rate of success, he knows he needs to continue to grow as a pitcher.

Never blessed with a true “out” pitch, the right-hander instead relies on pinpoint control of his fastball. Now, he would like to perfect his off-speed pitches, to the point where he feels comfortable throwing any of them in any situation.

“I know I don’t have the most overpowering stuff,” he said. “I’ve got to do it with what I have. I know my changeup isn’t exactly the best. I know my slider isn’t the best. I don’t have the fastest fastball. But I spot them well.”

And for three seasons, that has been more than good enough. Cordero might not have the arm or the mansion of a superstar, but there’s no one the Nationals would rather see on the mound in the ninth inning of a one-run ballgame.

“What you see is what you get,” Acta said. “Hey, we’ve seen it. You don’t have to be throwing 100 [mph] to be saving games. … We’re very happy with what he does.”

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