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Friday, December 14, 2007

LoDuca Named in Mitchell Report

Two days. That's the length of time Paul Lo Duca was able to enjoy as a Washington National before finding out his name was plastered all over former U.S. Senator George Mitchell's Report to the Commissioner of Baseball Into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances.

Lo Duca, introduced to the media with much fanfare this past Tuesday, was among more than 80 current or former players alleged as having used PEDs. According to the Report, Lo Duca made "six or more transactions" totaling over $9000, paid for with personal checks that were attached to the Report, from former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski. Radomski provided information for the report as part of his arrangement with federal prosecutors in conjunction with his case involving widespread sales and distribution of PEDs in the 90's. Lo Duca's name, address, and telephone number were in Radomski's address book, seized by federal agents during a search of Radomski's residence in that investigation. Also seized or produced in that matter were the cancelled checks and notes from Lo Duca to Radomski, including a handwritten note on Dodgers stationary that read: "Thanks, call me if you need anything! Paul".

The Report detailed how Lo Duca also funneled more business to Radomski, referring at least four Los Angeles Dodger teammates -- Matt Herges, Adam Riggs, Kevin Brown, and Eric Gagne -- to Radomski for the purchase of PEDs. The report also mentions internal notes from the Dodgers evaluating Lo Duca's performance and trade value, citing "steroids aren't being used anymore on him. Big part of this. Might have some value to trade...Got off the steroids" and implied Lo Duca would "get back on the stuff and try to show you he can have a good year". One of the checks written to Radomski coincided with Lo Duca's trade from Los Angeles to Florida in the summer of 2004.

Lo Duca was offered the opportunity to respond to the allegations in the report by Sen. Mitchell. Like almost all current players named in the Report he declined to speak with Mitchell for his investigation.

Lo Duca is the only current National to be named in the report. Former Nationals named were Nook Logan, Jose Guillen, Mike Stanton and Gary Bennett; none were alleged to have purchased PEDs while with the team.

The Nationals issued this release yesterday afternoon, and have had no further comment on the matter to this point:

"We have just received the Mitchell Report and have not yet had an opportunity to fully review it. It is clear though that, like all Major League clubs, the report includes names of players that have had or currently have an association with the Nats. We will let all comments on this matter come from the Commissioner's office, and we will have no further comment at this time."

BOTTOM LINE: Not good. Lo Duca seems to have been a link between Radomski and many players on the west coast. In his remarks following the issuance of the Report, Commissioner Allan "Bud" Selig stated that MLB would look into disciplining players named in the report "on a case-by-case basis", indicating matters of the "integrity of the game" would be his priority. Lo Duca is on a one-year contract and it would be shocking if Selig were able to investigate and mete out any discipline to Lo Duca while Lo Duca was under contract to the Nationals. Nats fans, like everyone else in America, are left to play jury with the evidence they have before them in the Mitchell Report. And with the players -- and Players Association -- remaining silent, fans have only one interpretation of the facts and evidence presented only by one source.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Nats Introduce Lo Duca, Milledge

The Washington Nationals introduced catcher Paul Lo Duca and outfielder Lastings Milledge to the media yesterday in a press conference at their downtown offices.

Lo Duca, 35, signed a reported one-year, $5 million contract with the team to become its new everyday catcher. He is a career .288/.338/.414 hitter in ten big league seasons, with 80 home runs to his credit. Last season for the Mets he hit .272/.311/.379, all season low totals since becoming a full-time player in 2001. "I'm excited to be part of a team that's young and has a chance to win this division," Lo Duca said.

In the introductions, Nats GM Jim Bowden went to particular lengths to make sure why Lo Duca was being brought in. "He's a winner. He has never been with a losing team. Ever," Bowden said. "He wins, that what he does." Lo Duca is a four time all-star who has played with the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers and Florida Marlins. Lo Duca joked about his motivation for joining the Nats, instead of taking a widely speculated offer from the Toronto Blue Jays, was "getting to play the Mets 18 times." He added, "A big part with me was staying in the National League, being familiar, knowing the National League East."

When asked about replacing Brian Schneider, a long-time member of the organization and one of its "faces", he laughed and said, "I've stepped in Mike Piazza's shoes three times now," but being a clubhouse leader is "not my role. This clubhouse belongs to Ryan Zimmerman and Dmitri Young and some of those guys."

Milledge was reserved but eager to prove himself. "We're gonna go out there, we're gonna bust our tail and we're gonna win," he said. He also said he doesn’t feel any added pressure coming into a team looking for him to be part of building a franchise and putting its stamp on the rest of the league. "The opportunity is great here, I have to come out here and win a position and nothing is set in stone," he said.

"I can't wait to play for a team that believes in young talent," Milledge said, and expressed his surprise that the Mets traded him within the division. He also proclaimed his happiness to stay in the NL East where he was "just learning the pitchers and teams." He finished, "Right now I just need the opportunity to play, and that's what the Washington Nationals are going to give me."

BOTTOM LINE: Signing Lo Duca allows the Nats to be patient with Jesus Flores next year, and Bowden and Manager Manny Acta left the door open to the possibility that Flores might start in the minors. Acta said, "That's a decision we haven't made yet. Come spring training, depending on how Jesus comes in and shows his progress, then we'll make a decision. If he shows up to spring training and [Flores] convinces us that the best way to go would be to have him here with Paul…we'll do it."

Lo Duca's numbers are clearly on the downside, but he has always hit for decent average and hardly ever strikes out. His on base percentage isn't what you look for from someone with low strike out numbers, but he can be a tough out at the bottom of the line-up for the Nats next year if his average returns to career norms. Signing a one-year deal at the age of 35 has to be a signal to all, including Lo Duca, that his time here is to hold the spot for Flores until he's ready to face big league hitting every night of the week.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Nats Sign A. Boone, Make Rule 5 Picks

On the last day of Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings, the Washington Nationals signed corner infielder Aaron Boone to a reported 1-year, $1 million contract. Boone, 34, son of Nats Special Assistant Bob Boone, played with the Marlins last season, hitting .286/.388/.423, with 5 homers and 28 RBIs in 69 games, playing mostly first and third base. He should serve as pinch-hitter and back-up at both positions for the Nationals.

In other news, the Nationals selected Matt Whitney and Garrett Guzman in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 Draft, which allows teams to select players from other organizations that aren't listed on the team's 40-man rosters. The caveat is that the player selected must stay on the selecting team's roster all season, or be offered back to the original team, or work a deal (cash or trade) to keep the player.

Whitney is a 24-year old corner infielder that hasn't played above Single-A in five minor league seasons. He has some power potential, hitting 63 home runs in 406 minor league games, while hitting .258/.339/.439. Whitney was selected from the Cleveland Indians organization.

Guzman, who will be 25 at the start of the season, missed the 2005 season after breaking his neck in a car accident. He is a utility outfielder who hits left-handed with gap power, something the Nats don't currently have on the roster. He is a career .290/.341/.439 hitter in six minor league seasons. He was selected from the Minnesota Twins.

BOTTOM LINE: Boone will help out, making the bench stronger by replacing Tony Batista. He's also much better defensively than Batista, and provides insurance against Zimmerman feeling any repercussions from off-season wrist surgery. He's also a good defensive replacement for Dmitri Young in the late innings without being a hole in the line-up should he need to hit, something which bit the Nats a couple of times late in games last season. Guzman is a candidate for the left-handed hitting reserve outfielder, along with Ryan Langerhans. Whitney seems superfluous, perhaps a draft and trade or maybe something to be worked out with Cleveland. The Nats did not lose anyone in the Major League Rule 5 Draft, indicative of the dearth of big league ready talent in the system.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Nats deal for Clippard from Yankees

Continuing his Winter Meetings trading spree, Washington Nationals GM Jim Bowden traded right handed reliever Jonathan Albaladejo to the New York Yankees in exchange for right handed starter Tyler Clippard.

Clippard, 22, was 3-1 with a 6.33 ERA and 1.704 WHIP for the Yankees in six starts. His final numbers were marred by his last two starts as he gave up a combined 11 earned runs against the Pirates and Mets. He has a variety of pitches and is considered a fairly polished pitcher. In parts of four minor league seasons, he was 29-28 with a 3.52 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and a K/BB ratio of 640/173 in 609.1 innings.

Albaladejo, 25, went 1-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 14.1 innings for the Nats last year. In six minor league seasons before his call-up he had never pitched above Double-A, compiling a 34-24 record, 3.54 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. He was converted from starter to reliever in 2005.

BOTTOM LINE: Clippard becomes an immediate candidate for the starting rotation. His excellent strikeout rate and control shows he knows how to pitch and a move to the NL will only accelerate his progress. Albaladejo has a good make-up and good stuff and definitely benefited from being moved to the pen full-time two years ago, but he was a spare part for the Nats in the bullpen. This is exactly the type of trade Bowden should be making, trading from a position of strength to bolster a weakness.

Nats Deal for Dukes

Washington Nationals GM Jim Bowden announced today that the Nats have acquired outfielder Elijah Dukes from Tampa Bay for minor league left-handed pitcher Glenn Gibson.

Dukes, 23, an immensely talented player, is routinely considered one of the top hitting prospects in all of baseball. However, his talent is overshadowed by on- and off-field negative incidents that cloud his once-promising MLB future.

This past May he was accused of threatening his wife and child's life via voice message, going so far as to send his estranged wife a picture of a handgun on her cell phone. The police report for that incident stated that police have been asked to deal with domestic violence issues between the two on at least four occasions dating back to 2003.

He was placed on Tampa Bay's Temporary Inactive List in June following the incident, and did not appear with them the rest of the season.

Prior to that incident, Dukes was arrested and charged for marijuana possession in January of 2007. In 2006, he was suspended for 15 games while with AAA Durham for disciplinary reasons and suspended another 5 games by the International League after needing to be restrained after being ejected for arguing balls and strikes. He finally received a 30 game suspension by the Tampa Bay organization for cumulative offenses.

More recently, Dukes was involved in an incident in a Dominican League game just last week. After being called out of strikes, he reacted angrily and was ejected after going after the umpire, once again needing to be restrained by teammates and coaches. He has since left his Dominican League team citing the need to return home for the holidays. Nats third base coach Tim Tolman was Dukes' manager in the Dominican League.

In their official press release, Nationals President Stan Kasten stated, "Let me emphasize that though Elijah's history may be very different from other players on our team, he will very definitely be held to the same high standards. We believe the Nationals clubhouse, manager, organization, and fans give Elijah Dukes his best chance to succeed and grow."

Dukes, a right handed hitter, is a bona fide five-tool athlete. In just 184 at bats last year for the Rays, he hit 10 home runs and drove in 21, despite .190/.318/.391 averages. He was one of just two AL rookies to hit 10 or more home runs last season. In parts of four minor league seasons, his averages were .284/.368/.454, with 45 homers, 225 RBIs and 91 steals in 418 games. Dukes was Tampa Bay's third round selection in the 2002 Amateur Draft out of Hillsborough (FL) High School, which has produced many major leaguers, including Gary Sheffield, Dwight Gooden, Carl Everett and the Orioles' Chris Ray.

Gibson, 19, played for the Vermont Lake Monsters in Low-A last season. He was 4-3 with a 3.10 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 58 innings pitched. He is a control pitcher with a decent curve and is projected as a back-end starter.

BOTTOM LINE: Nats GM Jim Bowden loves to take on reclamation projects, and Dukes certainly fits the bill. While his talent is unquestioned, there is quite a bit of rehabilitation to do on his public image. The Nats didn't give up equal talent to land Dukes, which goes a long way to describe his unpleasant history in Tampa. Bowden says in the official press release, "The support of our manager, coaches, front office and active players were a major factor in this decision. Our organization is determined to help Elijah turn his life around off the field and continue his development as a player." If Manny Acta, Dmitri Young and others can be a calming influence on this misguided youth, the Nats have added to their more-impressive-by-the-day stable of outfield talent. We eagerly await Bowden's next move.