Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Still stymied in their pursuit of big-name free agents, the Washington Nationals yesterday continued to bolster their roster with role players, re-signing reliever Luis Ayala to a two-year contract and giving free-agent outfielder Michael Tucker a one-year deal.

In locking up Ayala for $2.2 million ($900,000 this season, $1.3 million in 2007), the Nationals avoided two years of arbitration with their top set-up man. In picking up Tucker for $800,000, they added some veteran presence to an increasingly deep bench.

Tucker, 34, figures to join Marlon Byrd as Washington’s fourth and fifth outfielders, with Jose Guillen, Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Church holding down the three regular spots. Rookie speedster Brandon Watson will be given a shot to win the leadoff job and unseat one of those players in spring training, but most in the organization believe he needs another season at Class AAA.

Unable to land marquee free agents this winter, general manager Jim Bowden instead has set out to strengthen the Nationals’ bench, a decided weakness last season. In addition to Tucker, a 10-year veteran with a career .257 average, Bowden has signed free agents Marlon Anderson, Robert Fick and Damian Jackson. Combined with Byrd and infielder Jamey Carroll, Washington appears to have significantly upgraded its bench.

“The bench is really improved from last year,” Bowden said.

Tucker, who hit .239 in 126 games split between the San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies last season, also gives the Nationals some insurance in right field if Guillen is slow to recover from offseason shoulder surgery.

“We hope Jose is ready by Opening Day,” Bowden said. “But if he’s not, it’s really nice to know that we have a Michael Tucker who could play every day in right field.”

Bowden met with manager Frank Robinson last week in Southern California to discuss the makeup of the club’s roster, particularly the bench. Though it looks like the Nationals don’t have room to keep everyone, they believe it’s possible if they make utilityman Fick their lone backup catcher.

Before finalizing the Tucker deal, Bowden made a run at Chicago Cubs outfielder Corey Patterson. A club source, though, said that potential trade fell apart when the Cubs asked for two pitching prospects (including 2004 No. 1 pick Bill Bray) in return.

Ayala’s signing further solidifies what already was one of the National League’s best bullpens. The lanky right-hander, who turns 28 Thursday, went 8-7 with a 2.66 ERA in 68 appearances in 2005. It was his third straight season with a sub-3.00 ERA and at least 65 appearances. Although he had to be shut down last September because of a bone spur in his throwing elbow, the club was confident enough about his health to give him a two-year contract.

Ayala underwent surgery in October to remove the spur, and his agent yesterday declared the reliever healthy.

“He’s throwing already, he’s feeling great, he feels no pain whatsoever,” agent Joe Longo said. “He’s going to be fine for spring training.”

The Nationals have four remaining players eligible for arbitration: Soriano, Byrd, catcher Brian Schneider and first baseman Nick Johnson. Bowden said he has been working daily to avoid arbitration with all four and confirmed that he’s discussed multi-year contracts “with a couple of them.”

Bowden wouldn’t say which players he’s attempting to sign to long-term deals, but it’s believed Soriano and possibly Schneider are in the mix.

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