- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

The trade deadline came and went Thursday afternoon for the Washington Nationals, who consummated only one minor deal exchanging prospects.

The Nationals’ more significant roster moves were saved for after their 8-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, with three pricey but underperforming veterans given their outright release to make room for a group of young players.

Washington released infielder Felipe Lopez and catchers Paul Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada and on Friday will add infielders Emilio Bonifacio and Alberto Gonzalez and outfielder Elijah Dukes to the 25-man roster.

Unable to find any takers for those struggling veterans before Thursday’s 4 p.m. nonwaiver trade deadline, general manager Jim Bowden decided to give them their unconditional release, even though the club will continue to pay all their salaries for the rest of the season.

Lo Duca ($5 million) and Estrada ($1.25 million) were each signed as free agents over the winter to provide offense and guidance for young catcher Jesus Flores, but the two combined for no homers and 20 RBI in a combined 67 games.

Lopez ($4.9 million) suffered through his second straight disappointing season, hitting .234 in 100 games.

“We’re going to turn the page, and we’re going to get younger for the last two months,” Bowden said. “We’re going to continue to develop young players. We want players here that are going to hustle, that are going to play the game hard and play the game right.”

Estrada already had been designated for assignment last week and left the club. Lo Duca and Lopez learned their fates Thursday night and began the process of packing their bags and saying their goodbyes.

“I apologize to the organization and the fans,” said Lo Duca, 36, who will attempt to sign with another club or else go home to New York and train for next season. “I’m a better baseball player than I played.”

Said Lopez, 28, one of the key players Bowden acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in a July 2006 trade: “This is definitely not the end of me. I’m still young. I’m healthy. It didn’t go well for me here, but it’s not the end of the world. I wish everybody the best. I’ve got nothing bad to say about the Nationals.”

There were indications earlier Thursday afternoon that players like Lopez and Lo Duca could be released by the end of the night, paving the way for recently acquired players like Bonifacio, 23, and Gonzalez, 25, to join the major league roster.

Washington’s front office wanted to open up second base for Bonifacio, who was hitting .464 through his first seven games with Class AAA Columbus following his acquisition last week from the Arizona Diamondbacks for reliever Jon Rauch.

“Once we feel that he’s ready to contribute up here in the major leagues, he’ll be here,” assistant GM Mike Rizzo said in the afternoon. “But I would foresee him up here in the very near future.”

Upon arriving at Nationals Park, Bonifacio will be paired up with Gonzalez, his former middle-infield partner in the minors who was acquired Thursday from the New York Yankees for minor league pitcher Jhonny Nunez. The slick-fielding shortstop spent four years with Bonifacio in the Diamondbacks’ system before getting traded to the Yankees last year in the deal that sent Randy Johnson back to Arizona.

The Nationals believe Gonzalez (who was 1-for-14 this season with New York while Derek Jeter was hurt) is defensively ready to play every day in the majors but isn’t likely to hit higher than .260. Thus, he’ll serve as insurance in case Cristian Guzman (battling a bruised left thumb and likely to miss at least a couple more days) is injured.

“We feel like we’ve really stabilized our middle infield for the short term as well as the long term,” Bowden said.

Nunez, 22, had a 1.13 ERA in five relief appearances with Class AA Harrisburg after starting the season at Class A Potomac, attracting the Yankees’ attention. He was originally acquired in 2006 from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Marlon Anderson.

“I really like him. It was hard to do,” Bowden said. “But at the end of the day, I was convinced because our baseball people unanimously felt Gonzalez was an everyday major league shortstop, not just an extra player. It made it easier to make this decision.”

Dukes returns less than four weeks after suffering damage to both the meniscus and patellar tendon in his right knee tracking down a fly ball in Cincinnati. He went 5-for-15 in three rehab games at Columbus.

The Nationals will need to make another move prior to Friday’s game to clear one more spot on the 25-man roster.

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