Sunday, March 12, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — The Nationals signed Nick Johnson to a three-year, $16.5million contract extension yesterday, keeping the talented but oft-injured first baseman in a Washington uniform through the 2009 season.

Johnson, who would have become a free agent for the first time in his career after this season, now is locked up for four years (including the one-year, $3.2million contract he previously signed this winter). He becomes the second prominent regular, joining catcher Brian Schneider, to sign a long-term deal with the club since the end of last season.

“This sends out a good message to the fans and the players here,” manager Frank Robinson said. “If there’s a player we feel like will be good for the ballclub in the future, we won’t be afraid to lock him up. … This is a step in the right direction.”

Johnson, 27, is coming off his best season in the major leagues, having hit .289 with 15 homers and 74 RBI in 131 games. And most of that production came before he bruised his right heel June 26 — he was hitting .320 with a .444 on-base percentage at the time.

That heel injury derailed Johnson’s promising season, a recurring theme over his professional career. He has spent time on the disabled list each of the last six years, a fact that likely prevented him from cashing in on an even bigger contract.

Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said he took into account Johnson’s durability issues when negotiating with agent Rex Gary over the last month. Ultimately, Bowden felt the $16.5million investment was worth the risk for a player who — if he stays healthy — could be a steal at that price three years down the road.

“Certainly if he didn’t have a history of injuries, this isn’t the deal that he gets,” Bowden said. “That all played into it. But at the end of the day, I think everyone looked into all the facts and the information, both sides made compromises that made sense considering his production, considering his injuries and considering all of the factors that are involved there. …

“If he gets healthy, we have a real good deal. If he’s not healthy, we still have a good deal.”

Johnson will earn $5.5million in each year of the contract’s life. The deal contains a provision that turns the final year into a player option if Johnson is traded before the 2009 season.

Yesterday’s signing comes less than a week after Major League Baseball approved the District’s revised lease for the Nationals’ new ballpark, a decision that paves the way for a new owner to be named. Johnson, though, said he would have agreed to the extension regardless of the franchise’s situation.

“I’m just happy to be here,” he said. “I’m looking forward to winning. I haven’t won the big one yet, and I want to bring that to Washington.”

A career .265 hitter with the New York Yankees, Montreal Expos and Nationals, Johnson last year blossomed into one of the club’s best clutch hitters. He always has played outstanding defense, and Washington is banking on his continued development over the life of this contract.

“He’s one of the best defensive first basemen in our game,” Bowden said. “The kid can really hit. He’s got power. I don’t even think he’s scratched the surface of what he’s capable of doing. At age [27], we look at it as the next four years are going to be his prime years.”

That may be discouraging news to Larry Broadway, the organization’s top prospect at first base. Although Bowden has said Broadway could be ready for the majors within a year, he reiterated that “Nick Johnson’s going to be our first baseman for the next four years.”

With Johnson and Schneider (who signed a four-year, $16 million contract in January) now locked up long term, the Nationals will shift their attention to two other everyday players on the verge of free agency. Bowden said the club has made contract offers to both outfielder Jose Guillen and second baseman Alfonso Soriano but is far apart with both players.

Soriano, who is resisting the team’s plan to move him to left field, is going to be a difficult sell, but Guillen is agreeable to signing a new deal for the right price. The 29-year-old right fielder, who is making $4million in the final year of his contract, says he does not want negotiations to extend into the regular season. But given his recovery from shoulder surgery and a newly discovered wrist injury, the Nationals may want to see him back on the field before finalizing any deals.

If nothing else, Guillen was encouraged by yesterday’s signing of Johnson.

“It really shows me the organization is going in the right direction,” he said. “Especially myself, I am a free agent after this year, and they have to show me they really care about winning and they really need to show me they are going in the right direction before I make my decision.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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