Friday, November 4, 2005

The Nationals traded third baseman Vinny Castilla to the San Diego Padres last night for right-hander Brian Lawrence and cash, a move that makes 21-year-old Ryan Zimmerman an everyday player in Washington while also giving the club a much-needed starter at the back end of its rotation.

In trading away the 38-year-old Castilla, who was hampered by a bad knee in his only season with the Nationals, general manager Jim Bowden made the first of what could be several major offseason transactions, even with the club’s ownership situation still unresolved.

Major League Baseball is expected to select a new owner for the franchise in as little as two weeks, but Bowden was given permission by team president Tony Tavares to make this deal now.

“I have the authority to make the baseball decisions,” said Bowden, who last week had his contract extended through April. “Like I do with all transactions, I take it to my boss, Tony Tavares. I went to him with it and got approval.”

The trade is essentially a financial wash for both clubs. The Padres will take on all of the $3.2 million Castilla is owed in the final year of his contract, plus the $550,000 difference between the two players’ 2006 salaries. The Nationals will be responsible for Lawrence’s $3.5 million base salary. They also inherit a $5.7 million club option for 2007, but can instead choose to enact a $550,000 buyout (with San Diego agreeing to pay $425,000 of that).

Lawrence, 29, went just 7-15 with a 4.83 ERA this season, but was 15-14 with a 4.12 ERA in 2004. During his five-year career, all spent in San Diego, the sinker-ball specialist is 49-61 with a 4.11 ERA while making at least 33 starts each of the last four.

“He’s coming off an off year,” Bowden said. “But you look at the three years prior, and he’s proven he’s a solid starter who will give you a lot of innings. That’s important to a club. People always focus on the 1-2-3 starters. But over a 162-game schedule, the fourth and fifth starters are just as valuable.”

Lawrence said his struggles last season stemmed from a mechanical flaw in his delivery, one he said he corrected late in the season. The Padres still bumped him from the rotation for the playoffs, though, using him out of the bullpen.

“I’m kind of a feel guy, and for some reason I got into a groove where I felt out of whack for a while,” Lawrence said last night by phone from his home in San Diego. “But we corrected it, and I finished the year strong. I feel like I’m back on track. …

“I don’t really know what to expect. But I’m going to go in and do the one thing I know how to do, and that’s pitch. I’ll do that to the best of my ability and hopefully it helps the team.”

Bowden said the addition of Lawrence does not alter his primary offseason goal of acquiring two top-line starting pitchers. At the moment, the Nationals have three rotation spots locked up: Lawrence, plus returners John Patterson and Livan Hernandez. The club hopes to re-sign right-hander Esteban Loaiza, who last week declared for free agency, and is also pursuing such marquee free agents as Kevin Millwood, A.J. Burnett and Jarrod Washburn.

Asked if he’s still looking to add two more pitchers, Bowden said, “Yes, at a minimum.”

Castilla was one of the first players Bowden signed upon being hired by the Nationals a year ago. Signed to a two-year, $6.2 million deal, the veteran third baseman was expected to provide a potent bat in the middle of the lineup while also playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.

But after a hot start, Castilla struggled mightily. Hampered by tendinitis in his right knee, he wound up batting .253 with 12 homers and 66 RBI in 142 games. When Zimmerman, Washington’s first-round pick in the June amateur draft, sped through the club’s farm system and then thrived at the major-league level in September, it became obvious Bowden would try to trade Castilla.

Zimmerman, who hit .397 in 58 at-bats, is playing in the Arizona Fall League. He’ll now come to spring training as the clear front-runner to be the Nationals’ Opening Day third baseman, though Bowden last night said Brendan Harris (also playing well in Arizona this fall) has shown he may be ready to make the club in 2006.

“We wanted to open up third base for Ryan Zimmerman,” Bowden said. “We feel it’s best for the franchise to put him at third base now. And with the emergence of Brendan Harris in the Arizona Fall League, it gives us some depth there.”

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