- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007


It’s spring training, and the Washington Nationals have signed pitcher Pedro Astacio. Again.

It’s a little bit different from when they signed Astacio last spring. The move came about a month later, and this time it wasn’t even because a starter went down, such as when Brian Lawrence found out he had a torn labrum after his first throwing session in camp last year.

This time Astacio was signed out of a different sense of desperation — the thought that the Nationals may have a real problem putting major league pitchers out on the mound on a regular basis in 2007. And say what you will about Astacio. He is a major league pitcher, albeit a 37-year-old who, at this stage, is not very good.

But this is the reality of the situation when assessing the pitching prospects of the 2007 Nationals. Last year’s pitching staff may have been bad, very bad, but there is a difference between bad major league pitching and pitching that isn’t good enough to be bad major league pitching. A good part of the pool the Nationals are picking from to assemble this rotation falls into that latter category.

In other words, Pedro Astacio’s 5-5 record and 5.98 ERA in 901/3 innings for a team that won 71 games last year looks better and better as the start of the season draws near.

For what it’s worth, Ferguson Jenkins was at Roger Dean Stadium yesterday signing autographs and throwing out the first pitch before the Nationals-Marlins game. He’s 64 and may be available.

Astacio likely won’t be in a Nationals uniform on Opening Day. Unless things get really bad between now and April 2, Astacio will be with the Columbus Clippers. He signed a nonguaranteed minor league deal, though he should keep his frequent flier card handy. And he won’t be the only one. The Columbus-Washington corridor will be busy this summer.

Manager Manny Acta said the other day he doesn’t want to use 30 pitchers this year like the team did last season. They actually used 29 pitchers in 2006, and they may surpass that.

The Nationals’ pitching as of late has been impressive with a 1.25 ERA in the last four games and a 2.11 ERA in the last seven. John Patterson looks like he is ready to start the season, and Shawn Hill’s strong outing Monday is another good sign that, if he can stay healthy, he can be a quality major league starter. And rookie left-hander Matt Chico has shown enough poise and talent to be excited about his promise.

But with Patterson and Hill, the Nationals are a twitch, twist or tear away from being a full-blown Class AAA pitching staff, and Chico is a rookie with rookie tendencies as well as talent. He pitched well again yesterday, throwing four shutout innings against the Marlins. But you can’t judge how he will do this year until major league hitters get a couple of looks at him and perhaps figure him out and then see how Chico responds. Acta has even said that may be the biggest question mark for the young left-hander — handling failure.

Acta used Detroit pitchers Jeremy Bonderman and Mike Maroth as the yardstick for the mental toughness he believes a rookie pitcher will need on the Nationals’ staff this year. In 2003, Bonderman went 6-19 and Maroth 9-21 — that’s a glimpse of Acta’ expectations for this season.

Signing Astacio is the sort of deal that fits the Lerner family/Stan Kasten ownership profile to date — it won’t cost them a dime unless he makes the team, and then it will be only a $600,000 deal with no incentives.

“We are just trying to build up depth in the farm system to protect us from injuries,” Bowden said. “We are happy with the performance of a lot of our pitchers in camp. We don’t have a lot of depth, and we don’t want to be in a position where we are forced to rush a Collin Balester before he is ready. That is a little concern for us. [Jason] Simontacchi has a slight abductor [groin] injury. We hope he is ready by the start of the season. I don’t think he will make his next start.

“Look, we are very happy with Patterson and Hill and Chico and Simontacchi … but you have to have depth,” Bowden said. “You have to prepare for injuries, and we are just not happy enough with our depth to protect ourselves. It’s a nonguaranteed contract, a minor league deal. There are no guarantees he even makes the Triple A team at this point. We need to have depth so we don’t force a prospect to come up when he is not ready.”

This might have been a course of action worth pursuing a little bit earlier than March 20, when there were more candidates available than a 37-year-old pitcher playing catch in the Dominican Republic. It’s a good move, but Fergie Jenkins wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

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