- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS | The Washington Nationals made the first trade of the 2009 MLB winter meetings Monday, acquiring right-handed reliever Brian Bruney from the New York Yankees for a player to be named and making an early, if marginal, move to improve a bullpen that often struggled to protect leads last season.

It was Washington’s only concrete move on Day 1, though the Nationals’ name came up early and often, particularly as a possible destination for free agent pitcher Jon Garland and as the recipient of heavy interest in outfielder Josh Willingham.

While Monday’s signs pointed to a possible current of moves later in the week, Bruney represented an early attempt to fill a need cheaply.

“The lesson from last year is you have to go into spring training with a full complement and inventory of pitching,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “That’s what we’re trying to get: guys that give roster flexibility but also give us a chance to get guys out at the back end of the game.”

The 27-year-old Bruney went 5-0 with a 3.92 ERA in 44 games for the Yankees last season and was added to New York’s postseason roster during the World Series after being left off during the first two rounds. To make room for Bruney, the Nationals released reliever Saul Rivera. It’s believed they will send the Yankees the player they take with the first pick in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft as the player to be named.

Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman said Bruney will be a late-inning option for the Nationals and could emerge as a candidate to close.

“We’re not going to anoint anybody the closer now,” Rizzo said. “Jim has been known to go with the hot hand, the guy who’s getting the outs at that time. So yeah, he’s going to compete for the back end of the game for sure.”

Rizzo drafted Bruney with the Diamondbacks in 2000 and started talking to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman about acquiring him several weeks ago. The right-hander has walked 153 batters in 221 1/3 major league innings but has struck out 218, and his power fastball is the main reason the Nationals were so interested.

He has a history of elbow problems, but Rizzo said those haven’t flared up since June, and the Nationals’ medical staff didn’t see a cause for concern.

The rest of Rizzo’s day was filled with higher-profile, if less substantive, activity. He confirmed the team’s interest in Garland, the 30-year-old who has posted double-digit victories each of the last eight seasons. Garland was not offered arbitration by the Los Angeles Dodgers and is the kind of second-tier free agent the Nationals are believed to be targeting.

“We have interest in Jon Garland. We’ve had it the whole time,” Rizzo said. “He’s been one of the 10 names we’ve been talking about throughout the whole winter.”

Willingham, on the other hand, seemed to be one of a handful of names every other team was talking about Monday. The Mets were rumored to be leading the pursuit of the left fielder, who hit 24 homers last season and is entering his second year of arbitration. That combination makes Willingham a cost-effective alternative to free agents Matt Holliday and Jason Bay, but Rizzo and Riggleman said Willingham is staying put unless the Nationals get an overwhelming offer for the left fielder.

“We don’t have any desire to move Willingham, believe me. But he’s a guy that a lot of teams call about because he doesn’t have an exorbitant salary,” Riggleman said. “He does have a history of production. So teams are going to be interested in him. My guess is that he’ll be our left fielder next year, but again, between now and Opening Day, if somebody overwhelmed you with somebody, I guess you’ve got to listen.”

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