Friday, December 10, 2004

Jim Bowden wanted to see how baseball’s free agent market shaped up before making a serious run at a premier starting pitcher.

Now the market has spoken, and the results aren’t encouraging for the Washington Nationals interim general manager.

“It’s extremely high,” Bowden said. “But that’s the reality of baseball. You have to deal with the market.”

Baseball’s winter meetings officially open today in Anaheim, Calif., but already there has been a mad rush on starting pitchers. This week alone, right-handers Jaret Wright and Jon Lieber signed three-year, $21million deals (Wright with the Yankees, Lieber with the Phillies). The Marlins gave 39-year-old Al Leiter $8million for one year, and the Twins gave veteran Brad Radke $18million over two seasons to stay in Minnesota.

That could spell trouble for the Nationals, who are pursuing the Dodgers’ Odalis Perez but may not be able to afford the left-hander, who made $5million last season and is sure to command more money as a free agent.

Nevertheless, Bowden and his staff checked into the Anaheim Marriott last night intent on bringing home a pitcher.

“Our goals haven’t changed,” Bowden said. “We’d like to get a starting pitcher that’s capable of giving us 180-200 innings and winning 12-15 games. That’s been our No.1 goal from the very beginning.”

Washington actually has been one of baseball’s most active clubs this offseason. Since taking over Nov.2, Bowden has signed shortstop Cristian Guzman (four years, $16.8million), third baseman Vinny Castilla (two years, $6.2million) and catcher Gary Bennett (one year, $750,000). He also traded for Angels outfielder Jose Guillen, who is owed $3.5million in 2005.

Now he’s seeking to bolster a pitching staff that ranked 12th in the National League with a 4.33 ERA last season. Only staff ace Livan Hernandez pitched more than 120 innings, and the Nationals desperately would like to sign a No.2 starter to help take on the workload.

Bowden held talks with Cincinnati right-hander Paul Wilson but wasn’t willing to match the Reds’ two-year, $8.2million offer. He also pursued Wright, but couldn’t compete with the Yankees’ $7million-a-year deal.

The attention now has shifted to Perez, who went 7-6 with a 3.25 ERA in 31 starts last season and was offered salary arbitration this week by the Dodgers. The Nationals, though, may not be able to afford a pitcher who based on this week’s other signings is likely to command at least $6million a year.

“We are pursuing Odalis Perez,” Bowden said. “Whether or not we’ll be able to afford him or get him to want to come to Washington, that’s what we’re working on.”

Bowden said he is hesitant to break the bank on any one free agent, and his actions over the last month seem to support that. Though some around baseball questioned whether the Nationals overspent on Guzman and Castilla, neither has a massive contract.

“If we had spent $8million in right field and $8million at third base or shortstop, you wouldn’t have any money left,” Bowden said. “So what we tried to do was spend $3million in right, $3million at third and $4million at short and hope there’s enough money left over to get a starting pitcher. That was our plan going in, to fill four spots in a way that we could afford in our budget instead of one spot. That’s what we tried to do.”

There are other objectives for Washington at the winter meetings. In addition to the front-line starter, the club is in search of bullpen and bench help.

Manager Frank Robinson, who is attending the meetings, also is scheduled to interview six coaching candidates today. Randy St. Claire, Tom McCraw, Bob Natal and Eddie Rodriguez are returning from last year’s staff, but Robinson still needs a first-base and a third-base coach.

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