- The Washington Times - Friday, December 11, 2009

Only the next few weeks will tell whether the signing of 38-year-old backup catcher Ivan Rodriguez to a two-year, $6 million contract is lunacy or a harbinger of good things to come for the Washington Nationals.

The contract seems foolhardy on the surface, the move of a team that must overpay to get a noteworthy free agent to join the organization. And it’s been years since Pudge was a free agent of note - he now is just a free agent with a recognizable name.

The Nationals have alternately been tight and foolish with money in the past, and spending $6 million for a once-great catcher way past his prime seems like a luxury a club that lost 205 games over the past two seasons can’t afford.

However, since general manager Mike Rizzo now runs the show instead of Jim Bowden, these likely won’t be the last dollars the Nats spend to become more competitive this season.

Signing Pudge to back up Jesus Flores and mentor the young pitchers is a luxury for a team that needs starting pitchers, another middle infielder and a right field bat.

There is one reason for hope in this move, the only one of substance the club made at the winter meetings in Indianapolis: If the Nationals are willing to shell out $6 million for Pudge, they also are ready to spend money on more substantial needs.

Starting pitching is the highest priority, and Rizzo indicated before he left Indianapolis that he will not be scared off by the contracts awarded the likes of Randy Wolf, who got a three-year, $29.75 million deal from the Brewers, or Rich Harden, who signed a one-year, $7.5 million deal with the Rangers.

“I guess [saying a deal is for] a lot of money is in the eye of the beholder,” Rizzo said. “I think each pitcher is an individual situation, and there’s a value placed on each individual pitcher. If you sign a player for what you believe and what you deem his value is, that’s a fair and equitable deal.”

Rizzo, serving under Bowden last winter, coveted Wolf from afar, and the one-year, $5 million deal Wolf signed with the Dodgers at the time turned out to be a bargain.

Now the Nationals must set their sights on the respectable starters still available: Jarrod Washburn, Jon Garland, Jason Marquis, Joel Pineiro and Vicente Padilla - though it is disturbing that a troubled player like Padilla is even under consideration.

Garland seems like the best choice provided the Nationals can sign him to a one- or two-year contract. Team president Stan Kasten has said he will not sign free agent pitchers to long-term contracts - a sound policy.

Long-term deals are too risky. It is one thing to give such a contract to a young pitcher you raised and know well. But for a free agent pitcher, the max should be two years.

The Nationals need two veteran starters to complement their group of youngsters. Many believe one of them could be Livan Hernandez, the former Expo/National who returned to the team after being released by the Mets late last season. Hernandez had some very good outings in the midst of a 2-4, 5.36-ERA stretch at the end of the season, and if he is in the right frame of mind he could be a good presence.

Middle infield remains a question if the Nats don’t go with the plan of persuading Cristian Guzman to move from shortstop to second base and play youngster Ian Desmond at short. They have to convince Guzman, as they did Alfonso Soriano in 2006, that he can make much more money playing the new position in the future. No one is going to pay Guzman to play shortstop again after the Nationals shell out $8 million to him in this final season of his two-year deal.

Nationals fans should hope another outfield bat - a right fielder - is in the works as well.

The club needs to end the Elijah Dukes experiment. On his good days, Dukes is a negative presence in the clubhouse, and he simply can’t stay healthy enough to be consistent. And while the club is excited about what Justin Maxwell showed at the end of last season, his performance wasn’t enough to stake right field on for 2010.

Mike Cameron would be a great fit in right field and probably can be had for a reasonable one-year deal. He hit 24 home runs and drove in 70 runs last year with the Brewers at age 36 and is considered one of the great clubhouse presences in baseball.

Of course, none of this matters if all the Nationals have to show for their offseason shopping spree is an aging backup catcher.

That’s a luxury this team can’t afford without the rest of the spending that hopefully will follow.

c Listen to “The Sports Fix,” co-hosted by Thom Loverro and Kevin Sheehan, from noon to 2 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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