Friday, December 8, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Unwilling to dive into an exploding free agent market, unable to consummate any deals with finicky trade partners, the Washington Nationals sought to improve their club yesterday the only other way they could: through baseball’s arcane Rule 5 draft.

The Nationals selected two young players — New York Mets catcher Jesus Flores and Minnesota Twins right-hander Levale Speigner — and gushed over the possibility of each playing a significant role with the club, this season and beyond.

“We got two guys in the major league draft that we really wanted to get,” general manager Jim Bowden said before departing the winter meetings and heading back to Washington.

Flores (who figures to serve as catcher Brian Schneider’s top backup) and Speigner (who could compete for a spot in the starting rotation or pitch out of the bullpen) were the Nationals’ top two targets heading into the Rule 5 draft. Each player cost $50,000 and must remain on the major league roster all season or else be offered back to their original clubs for $25,000.

That the draft proved to be the highlight of Washington’s stay at the Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort underscores the rebuilding organization’s standing in the sport right now. While other clubs spent the last four days shelling out millions of dollars to what is considered a weak free agent class, the Nationals sat back and watched, never detouring from their plan to rebuild for the long-term.

Glaring holes remain in Bowden’s starting rotation, but the general manager believes there could still be affordable options available in another month if the market slows down and free agents such as Tomo Ohka, Mark Redman, Jason Johnson and Brian Moehler are willing to sign minimal, one-year deals.

“That doesn’t mean we haven’t made an offer to a free agent pitcher, because we have,” Bowden said. “What it means is, it’s going to be January before some people in the free agent market find out if they can do better.”

Whether they ultimately land a free agent or not, the Nationals still believe they can improve their club through trades. Outfielder Ryan Church and closer Chad Cordero remain the primary targets, with the Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs interested in Church and the Boston Red Sox pining for Cordero.

Asked if he’s optimistic he can complete a deal in the next few weeks that would fit into the organization’s long-term plan, Bowden said “yes” but would not get any more specific.

Though they didn’t leave town with any major new additions, the Nationals were pleased to swipe the two young players via the Rule 5 draft.

The acquisition of Flores, in particular, was seen as a coup. The 22-year-old catcher hit .266 with 21 homers and 70 RBI in 120 games with the Mets’ Class A team in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in 2006 and was on Washington’s radar screen last summer when former special consultant Davey Johnson pegged him as a top target approaching the trade deadline.

New Nationals manager Manny Acta, who worked for the Mets the last two seasons, and minor league manager John Stearns also were high on Flores, and that persuaded Bowden to take a chance on him.

“We just had too many good reports on him and what his potential is long-term,” Bowden said. “So we’re thrilled about that.”

Flores, rated New York’s 12th-best prospect last year by Baseball America, will try to beat out Brandon Harper, Danny Ardoin and Juan Brito for Washington’s No. 2 catching job this spring. Acta thinks Flores can handle the pressure, despite his inexperience.

“He’s got tremendous tools,” Acta said. “He’s a young kid, and we can afford to carry him. I believe he can be an everyday guy in the big leagues in the future.”

Speigner, 26, went 4-3 with a 3.57 ERA in 49 games with Class AAA Rochester and Class AA New Britain last year and projects favorably to Nationals relievers Ryan Wagner and Saul Rivera. With a low-90s fastball, an above-average breaking ball and a changeup, Speigner has started in the past, something scouting director Dana Brown thinks he could do again with the Nationals.

“What I like about him is he commands his stuff,” Brown said. “He’s got three legitimate pitches.”

The Nationals did lose one player during yesterday’s draft: shortstop Alejandro Machado, who was picked up by the Twins after only recently signing as a minor league free agent who would have competed for a utility job this spring.

Washington also had seven minor leaguers taken away during the Class AAA portion of yesterday’s draft: infielders Josh Labandeira, Brandon Powell, Trey Webb and Jose Contreras, catcher Salomon Manriquez and pitchers Jim Henderson and Ricardo Morales). None was considered a significant prospect, and most likely would have been released in coming weeks anyway.

The Nationals selected one player during the Class AAA draft: left-hander Justin Jones of the Twins, a Virginia Beach native and childhood friend of Ryan Zimmerman.

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