Thursday, December 8, 2005

DALLAS — In a bold move late last night, the Nationals finalized a trade that will bring Texas Rangers slugger Alfonso Soriano to Washington in exchange for outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and pitching prospect Armando Galarraga.

The deal, which had been in the works for a couple of days at the winter meetings, is still contingent upon Wilkerson passing a physical, which may not take place for a couple of days.

Nationals general manager Jim Bowden would not confirm the deal last night because of the pending physical, but a high-ranking club source confirmed it.

Soriano, 29, immediately gives Washington a potent bat in the middle of its lineup. A second baseman by trade, he’s likely to move to either left or center field, according to club sources, though much depends on the health of starting second baseman Jose Vidro. A former All-Star, Vidro has been plagued by a bad knee for more than two years, and the Nationals still don’t know what shape he will be in come spring training.

Soriano hit .268 with 36 homers, 104 RBI and 30 stolen bases last season. A .280 hitter with 162 homers and 465 RBI over five full seasons with the Rangers and New York Yankees, he made $7.5 million in 2005 and is now in his final year of arbitration eligibility, in which he’s likely to earn as much as $10 million.

The Nationals source, however, said the club is likely to pursue a long-term contract with Soriano once new ownership is in place.

Though Soriano will come at a hefty price, Washington does hand over Wilkerson’s contract to the Rangers now. Also eligible for arbitration, Wilkerson is likely to make $4 million to $5 million in 2005.

One of the franchise’s most-recognized players from the moment it relocated from Montreal, Wilkerson suffered through a frustrating 2005 season at RFK Stadium. After hitting 32 homers the previous season, he hit just 11 with 57 RBI and a .248 average while battling a variety of injuries.

Wilkerson will get a fresh start in Texas, where he will be joined by fellow 28-year-old outfielder Sledge, who spent most of last season on the disabled list after tearing his hamstring tracking down a fly ball in Los Angeles.

Sledge, according to club sources, proved to be the key figure in the trade. The two teams had settled on Wilkerson and Galarraga (one of the organization’s top pitching prospects) earlier in the week, but Sledge was the final piece of the puzzle.

Sources said the Rangers wanted another top Nationals prospect, either pitchers Collin Balester or Michael Hinckley or infielder Kory Casto, but Bowden was not willing to part ways with any of them.

In other Nationals news, the club yesterday offered arbitration to pitchers Joey Eischen and Tony Armas before a midnight deadline and were close to signing both free agents to one-year contracts.

Eischen’s deal, which baseball sources said is worth about $1.2 million, keeps one of the most popular players in the Nationals clubhouse around for another season. The left-handed reliever, one of manager Frank Robinson’s favorites, battled back from injuries to post a 3.22 ERA in 57 appearances last year, including a 2.49 ERA after the All-Star break.

The re-signing of Armas is a bit of a surprise, given his injury history. The right-hander went 7-7 with a 4.97 ERA in 19 starts before being shut down in September to undergo shoulder surgery.

The Nationals, though, have received positive reports on Armas’ shoulder and plan to sign him to an incentive-laden, one-year contract with a minimal base salary. He will get a chance to make the starting rotation out of spring training, but if he fails, the club wouldn’t take much of a financial hit.

Washington did not offer arbitration to its two other remaining free agents, Preston Wilson and Carlos Baerga. Those two are now ineligible to re-sign with the Nationals until May 1, though the club has no intention of bringing either player back in 2006.

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