Belliard ready to help Nationals

Belliard ready to help Nats any way he can

VIERA, Fla. -- Infielder Ronnie Belliard put up some nice numbers in 2006. With the Indians and Cardinals, he hit a combined .272 with 13 home runs and 67 RBIs. The home runs and RBIs ranked in the top 10 among second basemen in the Major Leagues.

To top it off, Belliard was instrumental in the Cardinals' postseason run to the World Series. His best time during the month of October came during the National League Division Series against the Padres, when he went 6-for-13.

After the Cardinals defeated the Tigers in the World Series, Belliard filed for free agency. There were some who thought he would go back to the Indians because the team was looking for a second baseman, and he had his most productive years in their organization in 2004 and '05. But Cleveland acquired Josh Barfield from the Padres on Nov. 8 to play second base, so that was one option taken away.

Belliard, who made $4 million last year, said he was looking for a two-year deal, and was not looking for outrageous money, but no Major League team was willing to give him what he wanted.

"I've been around the league for nine years, and every year is a one-year contract, so I said it would be good to have a two-year deal. I was not looking for a five-year deal," Belliard said. "I was not one of those guys that were looking for a lot of money."

November turned into December, which turned into January, and Belliard was still without a job.

When pitchers and catchers reported during the week of Feb. 11, Belliard remained a free agent. Asked why he was having problems getting a job, Belliard was baffled and didn't have an answer.

"I don't know. You ask me that question. I was hoping I could ask you that question," he said. "Right now, what do I have to prove? I think for the last three years in my career, I think I've proved a lot of people wrong. I look forward to proving a lot of people wrong [again]."

"Nobody said anything. But I don't have to prove anything anybody anymore. I feel good about myself. ... It's not about the money. I grew up playing baseball. The money is only to support my family."

Industry sources indicated that another possible reason Belliard remained on the market was a reported extortion attempt made against him.

Belliard declined to discuss specifics in the extortion case, but he refused to believe that his problem off the field had anything to do with being unemployed.

"A lot of players do a lot of worse things, and I didn't do anything. If I did anything, I would be in jail," he said. "I'm free and I'm here. A lot of players do worse and they have good contracts."

Washington was willing to take a chance on Belliard. Looking to strengthen their bench, protect themselves in case of an injury to starting shortstop Cristian Guzman and help themselves for the trade deadline, the Nationals signed Belliard to a non-guaranteed Minor League contract on Feb. 18. If he makes the 25-man roster, Belliard will make $750,000, plus incentives.

Belliard is the leading candidate to back up third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and second baseman Felipe Lopez. And if Guzman is not ready to play shortstop or is unproductive with the bat, Belliard could start at second with Lopez moving back to short. Belliard also could be used as trade bait in case the Nationals want to acquire a prospect.

Manager Manny Acta is familiar with Belliard. The two worked together for the Licey Tigers in the Dominican Winter League and the World Baseball Classic. Acta was the manager and Belliard was his third baseman.

After Belliard agreed to the deal, Acta called his new infielder to tell him that he was only going to be a backup. Belliard didn't have any problems with his new role, a role he hasn't done since 2002 when he was with the Brewers.

"He is one of those guys that will not lie to you," Belliard said about Acta. "When he has to say something, he will say it to your face. He is one of those guys that will not talk behind your back. He talked to me straight. That's why I came here."

Belliard says he wants to help the Nationals become a championship contender. In fact, Washington reminds Belliard of the young Indians teams he played in 2004 and '05.

"I see a bunch a guys that are young and hungry," Belliard said. "It reminded me of when I went to Cleveland in 2004. They were young and we lost a lot of games, but by the next year, we had our run. We almost made the playoffs."

"The Nationals are about winning," he said. "They believe in their young players, and I think that's why they brought me here. I have a little bit of experience. When ever I can help these young guys, I will help them.

"They brought me here to help this ballclub. I have to realize that I will not be playing every day. I just have to be ready on the bench for anything -- pinch-running, double-switches. I can do that."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.