- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

With a final flurry of moves that favored scrap-heap relievers over in-house options and gave their bullpen more left-handers, the Washington Nationals finalized their 25-man roster Saturday afternoon, two days before opening the season in Miami against the Florida Marlins.

The Nationals trimmed their roster from 30 players to 25 before their exhibition against the Baltimore Orioles, optioning right-handed relievers Jason Bergmann and Garrett Mock to Class AAA Syracuse and granting roster spots to Wil Ledezma and Julian Tavarez, who signed minor league deals in the offseason.

They also finalized their starting lineup when manager Manny Acta told Austin Kearns just before the game he would be the starting right fielder, ending a seven-week competition between the seven-year veteran and Elijah Dukes for the spot.

Kearns hit .279 in spring training with four homers and 10 RBI. Dukes, by comparison, hit .212 with 22 strikeouts. The move closed a resurgent spring for Kearns, who was coming off an injury-filled and ineffective 2008 season. He hit .217 in 86 games last year but looked like a different hitter this spring after going down to Florida in January to work with hitting coach Rick Eckstein.

“We told our players there was going to be competition,” Acta said. “I think it would send the wrong message if, after he led all our outfielders in home runs and RBIs [this spring], we don´t give him the job, at least to start the season.”

Washington also sent reliever Jesus Colome, infielder Alex Cintron and starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann to minor league camp, though Zimmermann will join the team when it needs a fifth starter April 19.

The losers in the moves are Bergmann and Mock, who looked like strong candidates to make the bullpen. Mock had 11 strikeouts and four walks in 16 innings; Bergmann had not allowed an earned run all spring. But when Washington decided to keep Ledezma and Mike Hinckley rather than risk losing one of the left-handers on waivers, Bergmann and Mock lost out.

“It’s good to have three left-handers, especially in our division against the teams we’re going to play most often,” acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. “It was a great competition.”

They were also out of luck partly because they weren’t out of minor league options; Bergmann is in his final option year and will continue tinkering with his control out of the bullpen, while Mock (in his second option year out of three) will be the closer at Syracuse.

If Washington needs to call up a starter because of an injury, Rizzo said, Collin Balester and Kip Wells would be the first options. Those two will be the top two starters at Syracuse once Zimmermann is called up.

The three-lefty alignment in the bullpen came about partially because the Nationals wanted a left-handed specialist other than Joe Beimel, who was signed March 18 to be the setup man. Hinckley was the tentative bet to be the only left-hander in the bullpen at the beginning of the spring based on how he pitched last September, but Ledezma worked his way onto the roster this spring.

The 28-year-old, who has pitched with four teams in the past two seasons, had allowed two earned runs in 10 2/3 innings this spring while striking out 11.

“He’s a power arm from the left side. I can see why he keeps getting chances,” manager Manny Acta said. “I hope this is a long stop for him, that he can just take off. We don’t view him only as a situational lefty. He can go out there and overpower right-handers, too.”

Heading into Saturday, the only other roster spot in question was the last one on the bench. But Washington will start the year with three catchers, as expected, until Zimmermann is called up.

The Nationals signed Josh Bard this spring to compete with Wil Nieves for the backup job behind Jesus Flores, and they will have another two weeks to make a decision on whom to keep. Bard’s contract is now guaranteed; he’ll make $600,000 this year.

But either he or Nieves might end up in the minors before too long. Acta said he doesn’t envision a scenario where Washington will keep three catchers all season.

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