- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

JUPITER, Fla. — Desperate for quality pitching and in seek of some help in case of an emergency, the Washington Nationals yesterday signed veteran Pedro Astacio to a nonguaranteed, minor league contract.

The 37-year-old right-hander, who went 5-5 with a 5.98 ERA in 17 starts with the Nationals last season, isn’t likely to be promoted to major league camp before spring training ends. He isn’t even guaranteed of making the franchise’s Class AAA rotation.

But general manager Jim Bowden said he made the deal to ensure another experienced arm is available should the need eventually arise.

“We’re just trying to build up depth in the farm system in case there’s any injuries to one of our pitchers in camp,” Bowden said. “We don’t have a lot of depth. We don’t want to get into a position where we are forced to rush a Collin Balester before he’s ready. That’s a real concern for us right now.”

Astacio, who is 129-124 record and a 4.67 ERA in 15 seasons, had been working out at his home in the Dominican Republic and, according to manager Manny Acta, had received interest from several teams. If he makes the Nationals’ major league roster, he will earn $600,000.

“He was sitting at home in the Dominican Republic missing baseball and wanted a chance to come back and compete,” Bowden said. “We had a depth issue, and we’re giving him a chance.”

Schneider on the mend

The Nationals hope to have Brian Schneider back in the lineup tonight when they face the Atlanta Braves in Viera, Fla., but Acta said he doesn’t want to push his starting catcher back too soon from a strained left hamstring.

Schneider missed his third straight game yesterday.

“We’ll take as long as we have to,” Acta said. “As long as we have him for Opening Day.”

Acta plans to ride Schneider pretty hard over the course of the season. The manager said yesterday he plans to have the 30-year-old start at least 140 games, five more than he has in any season in his career.

Part of that stems from the Nationals not wanting to expose backup Jesus Flores, a 22-year-old Rule 5 draftee, to too much playing time. But Acta also believes Schneider is physically and mentally ready to handle the rigors of a full season behind the plate.

“I think he’s in better shape than I’ve ever seen him before,” Acta said. “And I think when you come in here, you should prepare yourself to play 162 games, just like Cal [Ripken] used to do and [Miguel] Tejada does. … It is realistic if you’re as young as he is.”

Extra bases

Right-hander Jason Simontacchi, who skipped his scheduled start yesterday because of a strained groin, remains on target to start the third game of the season. But team officials say if he can’t make his next exhibition outing Sunday against the Braves, he may have to open the season on the disabled list.

“He’s getting better slowly, so we’ll see,” Acta said. “We’re going to skip him one start and then we’ll re-evaluate him. If he’s not able to make that other start, that’s obviously going to play into [the decision].”

Rookie Matt Chico, slated to be the No. 4 starter, would be bumped up to the No. 3 slot if Simontacchi isn’t ready. …

The team plans to make at least four cuts today, bringing the roster of healthy players down to 34.

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