Saturday, December 11, 2004

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Washington Nationals were scheduled to meet with the agents for Odalis Perez late last night, but the club does not expect to be able to sign the free agent pitcher.

“We’ll meet one more time, but I’m not optimistic,” interim general manager Jim Bowden said earlier as the baseball winter meetings officially began.

The Nationals thought they had a chance to land Perez, who went 7-6 with a 3.25 ERA in 31 starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. The current inflated state of the pitching market, though, likely has pushed the left-hander out of their price range.

Perez made $5million last year and figures to command a new deal just shy of those already signed by other top free-agent pitchers. The Mets gave Kris Benson a three-year, $22.5million contract, Jaret Wright (Yankees) and Jon Lieber (Phillies) each got three years and $21million and the Diamondbacks yesterday signed Russ Ortiz to a four-year deal worth about $33million.

Washington previously had fallen short in its pursuits of Ortiz and Wright and now can likely add Perez to that pricey list.

“It’s because of the marketplace,” Bowden said. “It’s strictly financial.”

With Perez out of the picture, the Nationals will shift their attention to a remaining pool of free-agent pitchers that includes the Yankees’ Esteban Loaiza, the Braves’ Paul Byrd and the Cubs’ Matt Clement.

A more likely scenario, however, might have the Nationals looking to acquire a starting pitcher via trade. Bowden said he discussed various deals with six to eight clubs yesterday, and though nothing was consummated, he feels he could pull something off before leaving town Monday.

One recently published rumor had Washington sending first baseman Nick Johnson to the Blue Jays for promising young outfielder Alexis Rios, but baseball sources said Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi nixed the trade and has no intention of dealing Rios.

Bowden also said he has no interest in signing veteran left-hander Denny Neagle, who was cut loose by the Rockies last week following his arrest for solicitation.

Whether the Nationals continue to make significant alterations to their roster before spring training or not, manager Frank Robinson is optimistic about the state of his club.

“If I had to start the season right now, I like these players,” Robinson said. “There’s always room for improvement, but this is a pretty good club.”

In other Nationals news:

• Bowden will meet with the agent for Barry Larkin in hopes of convincing the potential Hall of Fame shortstop to sign a one-year contract. Bowden knows Larkin well from his 101/2 years as GM of the Cincinnati Reds and would like to bring him to Washington to serve as a backup infielder and mentor to younger players.

“We like him for the veteran leadership he can bring,” Bowden said.

Larkin, who turns 41 in April, may not make a decision for a while as he waits to see if any other clubs are willing to give him a starting job.

• Bowden and Robinson yesterday interviewed candidates for two vacant coaching positions. The Nationals need both first- and third-base coaches after losing Jerry Morales and Manny Acta from last year’s staff in Montreal. The club declined to renew the contract of roving instructor Claude Raymond, ending the Montreal fan favorite’s 36-year tenure with the organization as a player, coach and broadcaster.

• Washington has hired former major league catcher and manager Bob Boone as a special assistant to the general manager. Boone’s duties will include helping plan for the June amateur draft and helping in player development. Bowden also is interviewing former major league pitcher Jose Rijo for a yet-to-be-determined position.

• The Nationals have hired Chartese Booty as vice president of communications. Booty is no stranger to the Washington sports scene — she previously held a similar role with Players Inc., the marketing and licensing branch of the District-based NFL Players Association.

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