- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 1, 2009

PITTSBURGH | Seventy-five minutes before Friday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, the Washington Nationals’ roster was unchanged. Nick Johnson had arrived at PNC Park to find his name in the starting lineup. Joe Beimel was grabbing a quick lunch at the team hotel before heading to the ballpark.

Both players spent most of the day wondering if they would be dealt. But, by that point, they had accepted they would remain with Washington.

And then it happened. Beimel got a phone call from acting general manager Mike Rizzo about 2:50 and learned he had been traded to the Colorado Rockies for two minor league pitchers. At 4, Johnson went into the underground batting cage to take some swings, then got a tap on the shoulder and learned he had been dealt to the Florida Marlins for a left-handed prospect.

Just like that, the Nationals went from nonfactors to major players as the deadline passed.

In each case, Rizzo dealt veterans who were about to become free agents for young pitchers who will add depth to the organization’s growing stable of arms. That didn’t make the news easy to accept for the players, especially those who had grown fond of Johnson the past five years.

Moments after learning he had been traded for 22-year-old lefty Aaron Thompson, Johnson was packing his equipment bag, receiving hugs from teammates and trying to hold back tears. The 30-year-old first baseman was the organization’s longest-tenured player, the last remaining Montreal Expos player to survive relocation and multiple roster overhauls.

“I’ve got a lot of friends on the team, but I’m going somewhere else,” he said. “It’s about winning, and [the Marlins are] a good young team.”

Johnson will have a chance to join the NL wild-card race as Florida’s new No. 2 hitter, an intriguing prospect for a player who has not been a part of a pennant race since 2003 with the New York Yankees. That said, Johnson had interest in staying in the District and had discussions recently about a contract extension.

Ultimately, neither side could agree on terms, and though both Johnson and Rizzo said they could revisit talks this winter after he becomes a free agent, the trade made sense now.

“We deemed it better for the organization to get a good pitching prospect for him, rather than keep him till the end of the season and then risk walking away with nothing,” Rizzo said.

In exchange for Johnson - who was hitting .295 with six homers, 44 RBI and a robust .408 on-base percentage - the Nationals get a polished lefty whom Rizzo believes could blossom into a “middle-of-the-rotation” starter. Thompson, a first-round pick in 2005 who will report to Class AA Harrisburg, was 5-9 with a 4.11 ERA in 20 starts this season.

Washington received two young-but-raw right-handers for Beimel: 25-year-old Ryan Mattheus and 23-year-old Robinson Fabian. Each faces significant odds. Mattheus, a flamethrower who had 27 strikeouts in 26 innings this season, blew out his elbow earlier this month and had Tommy John surgery that will keep him out until late 2010.

“We felt it was a risk worth taking to roll the dice and see if this guy returns to his pre-injury form,” Rizzo said. “If he does that… we’ve got a steal here for a situational left-handed reliever that was going to walk away in two months.”

Fabian also has a dynamic arm but didn’t became a pitcher until after signing with the Rockies out of the Dominican Republic in 2003. He’ll report to low-Class A Hagerstown.

Beimel, 32, figured to be a popular trade target because of his affordable contract ($2 million) and postseason experience with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He went 1-5 but had a 3.40 ERA in 45 appearances with Washington and now will join the wild-card race in Colorado.

“I’m definitely excited,” Beimel said. “The reason you play this game is because you want to win, you want to be in the playoffs and have a chance to win a championship. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

As part of the deals, the Nationals agreed to pay $1.5 million of the rest of Johnson’s salary - he is making $5.5 million this year - and $300,000 of Beimeil’s.

The Nationals played Friday night’s game against the Pirates with only 23 active players, waiting until the end of the evening to call up outfielder Elijah Dukes and reliever Jorge Sosa from Class AAA Syracuse. Dukes, who hit .288 with three homers and 10 RBI in 19 games since his demotion, will get the bulk of the playing time in right field. Josh Willingham will shift to left field, and Adam Dunn will move to first base.

Those two will join a roster that remained surprisingly intact after the trade deadline, with Rizzo electing not to deal Dunn and Willingham and keep them as foundation players along with the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, John Lannan, Nyjer Morgan and Jesus Flores.

“We are in a building process. We are not rebuilding,” Rizzo said. “This is a team that is, in my opinion, not far away from being a good, solid baseball team.”

• Mark Zuckerman can be reached at mzuckerman@washingtontimes.com.

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