- The Washington Times
Thursday, July 24, 2008

The transactions the Washington Nationals made Tuesday - they traded Jon Rauch for a prospect at second base and signed Cristian Guzman to a two-year extension - make sense both for today and the immediate future.

The Nationals have zip, nada, in the farm system at either second base or shortstop. Felipe Lopez has been such a disappointment that it’s nearly impossible to consider re-signing him. So the club needed to find a second baseman for next year and beyond.

The free agent market for 2009 essentially has one option worth pursuing: Diamondbacks second baseman Orlando Hudson.

Hudson is making $6.25 million this year and batting .303 with 26 doubles, eight home runs and 40 RBI. He will command at least a three-year, $30 million contract on the market next year. Even if the Nats were willing to make that financial commitment, Hudson still would have to want to sign with them. Unless they were willing to outbid everyone else, why would he?

At shortstop, the best option to maintain or upgrade the play the club is getting from Guzman, who would have been a free agent in 2009, is Rafael Furcal, who is in the final year of a three-year, $39 million contract with the Dodgers.

Furcal is a huge question mark - back problems have limited him to just 32 games this season. He was a catalyst when he did play, batting .366 and scoring 34 runs. But he may have to sign a one-year deal because of his physical problems, though that contract surely would be worth at least $10 million. And again, he would have needed to be persuaded to come to Washington - and to do that, it takes overpaying.

That’s where the Nationals are right now. Like the Orioles of a few years ago, the Nats face the prospect of overpaying even mediocre free agents to come to a franchise that just isn’t attractive to players.

So the Nationals dealt Rauch to Arizona for Emilio Bonifacio, a highly regarded second base prospect who was hitting .302 with 18 doubles, five triples, one home run, 29 RBI and 17 stolen bases in 85 games with Class AAA Tucson before being recalled by the Diamondbacks in early July.

You have to have faith that Nationals assistant general manager Mike Rizzo, the former scouting director for the Diamondbacks, knows Bonifacio well and believes he can be a quality second baseman. At the very least, Bonifacio will be far more enjoyable to watch out there than Lopez, and he will be earning nearly $5 million less.

The Nationals had no choice but to trade Rauch. The season is done, and he was their only valuable commodity to deal.

Relievers are such a strange commodity. When a team needs one, the need usually is immediate and short term, such as a pennant run. But relievers also are not that hard to come by when putting together an offseason roster, save for a few legitimate stars like a Billy Wagner. Last year’s failed starting pitching prospect is next year’s reliever.

You could argue that the Nationals could have gotten more for Rauch, but again you have to believe that, based on Rizzo’s evaluation, Bonifacio was a guy they wanted. So they made the deal.

Paying Guzman $8 million a year for the next two seasons seems high. Guzman is in the final year of what had been a disastrous four-year, $16 million contract, a contract rescued only because he underwent Lasik surgery and discovered it’s easier to hit the ball when he can see the ball.

Guzman is having an All-Star year, batting .307 with 56 runs, 26 doubles, five home runs and 34 RBI in 96 games. Still, it is hard to forget about the first three years or so of that contract that were wasted.

The key to this deal, though, is the two-year term. Really, it’s not how much they are paying Guzman a season - the Nationals could double their payroll next year and still have nine teams ahead of them in this year’s payroll figures. The most important factor is the payroll flexibility. It’s better to overpay someone for two years than to be locked into three or more years at what you believe is a more reasonable annual salary.

Both deals seem like good moves. Then again, most believed the trade that brought Lopez and Austin Kearns here two years ago was a great deal. Now the Nationals can’t wait to get rid of one of those guys (Lopez) and would love not to have to pay the other (Kearns) $8 million next season.

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