Nats sign reliever Rodriguez, Clayton
Veterans provide Washington with depth in bullpen, infield
WASHINGTON -- General manager Jim Bowden continues to add depth to the Nationals. On Thursday, he signed right-hander Felix Rodriguez to a one-year, $600,000 contract and shortstop Royce Clayton and outfielder George Lombard to Minor League deals.
Rodriguez, 33, played for the Yankees last season and had a 5.01 ERA in 34 games out of the bullpen. Rodriguez also spent time on the disabled list after tearing the medial meniscus in his left knee.
The Nationals believe that a healthy Rodriguez could strengthen the bullpen as a setup man. At his best, Rodriguez is known to pitch in a lot of games and strike out a lot of batters. Rodriguez's best season was 2001, when he went 9-1 with a 1.68 ERA with the Giants. He struck out 91 batters in 80 1/3 innings.
Rodriguez could earn another $650,000 if he's on the 40-man roster through Aug. 1.
Rodriguez more than likely will replace right-hander Hector Carrasco, who had the best season of his career in 2005 and then signed a free agent contract with the Angels.
As for Clayton, the Nationals signed the right-handed hitter as insurance in case Cristian Guzman has a subpar season as he did in 2005, when he hit .219 with four home runs and 31 RBIs.
A 15-year veteran, Clayton played for the Diamondbacks last season and hit .270 with two homers and 44 RBIs.
Before agreeing to the Minor League deal, Clayton spoke to Bowden for an hour. Bowden told Clayton the organization wanted Guzman to be the starting shortstop and pick up where he left off in September, when he hit .325. But if Guzman gets off to another slow start in Spring Training, Clayton will compete for the starting job.
Bowden then told Clayton that he didn't want to sign him unless he would accept a backup role. Clayton promised Bowden "with conviction" that he would accept being a backup to Guzman and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Clayton's promise is a far cry from what he said last week -- that he wasn't willing to accept a backup role. In fact, he wasn't interested in a similar role with the Rockies. Clayton said playing for a winning team mattered the most.
"I told Jim, 'Whatever it takes for the team to win, that's what I'm all about,'" Clayton said. "Coming in, I'm just going to prepare myself like I have in the past. I'm going to get ready to play 162 games. I'll let everything else take care of itself. I have a tremendous amount of respect for [manager] Frank Robinson, and I know he will put out the best lineup that's going to help the team win, and that all you want."
Clayton is used to competing for a job. As a member of the Cardinals, he competed with Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith for a starting position and ended up being the starter.
"I didn't sign Clayton because we are going to give up on Guzman," Bowden said. "But if Guzman fails like he did last year, we have an alternative that we didn't have last year."
If Clayton does well in Spring Training, it would create a huge logjam. The Nationals already have three backup middle infielders in Marlon Anderson, Damian Jackson and Jamey Carroll. That would mean someone would have to go. The matter most likely will not be settled until mid-March.
Carroll, the most fundamentally sound player on the team, appears to be the likely person to be traded. He doesn't provide the offense that Clayton, Anderson and Jackson do, and some in the organization believe he's not good enough defensively to play shortstop.
According to one source, Bowden and Robinson are debating what to do with Carroll, who is a Robinson favorite. The two have been together since 2002, and Robinson loves the fact that Carroll can do the little things, like bunting and running the bases, very well. Robinson even once made the statement, "If Jamey Carroll goes, I go."
Lombard, 30, joins the Nationals after hitting .262 with 28 doubles, 20 home runs, 65 RBIs and 23 stolen bases for Triple-A Pawtucket. He has Major League experience with the Braves, Tigers and Devil Rays.
In other news, the Nationals expressed interest in Astros center fielder Willie Tavares, but it seems unlikely they will get him. The Astros have a crowded outfield, but that could change if Lance Berkman moves to first base. The Nationals are still looking for a leadoff hitter. As of now, Brandon Watson is now the leading candidate.
The Nationals outrighted right-hander Francis Beltran on Thursday to Triple-A New Orleans of the Triple-A International League.
Beltran did not pitch last season after having Tommy John surgery.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.