Nationals to sign catcher Estrada

Nationals to sign catcher Estrada

WASHINGTON -- Looking to bolster their offense even more, the Nationals agreed to terms on a $1.25 million contract with catcher Johnny Estrada on Tuesday, pending a physical.

When reached for comment Tuesday morning, Nationals general manager Jim Bowden would not confirm or deny the report. But Estrada said later in the day that he is looking forward to playing for the Nationals and in their new ballpark.

A baseball source insisted signing Estrada is not a reaction to Paul Lo Duca being slated to miss up to six weeks after left knee surgery.Instead, the source said, the move was made because the Nationals are heavy on right-handed bats.

Estrada, 31, is a switch-hitter and more successful from the left side of the plate. In the last three years, in fact, Estrada hit .282 against right-handed pitching. Lo Duca is a .278 hitter during that same period.

Estrada said he was close to signing with the Pirates, but picked the Nationals instead. It helps that he will be reunited with bench coach Pat Corrales and team president Stan Kasten. The trio worked together when they were members of the Braves, and sources have indicated that Estrada has a great working relationship with Corrales.

"I'm happy, man. Obviously, it has been a trying offseason for me -- not having a job, not knowing where I was going to end up. So I've been kind of down in the dumps about that," Estrada said. "This past week, I had a couple of teams that were bidding against each other and they both wanted me to come. I came close to signing with Pittsburgh, but I really didn't want to sign there.

"At the same time, it was getting close. Obviously, the Lo Duca [injury] kind of sparked this a little bit. ... It was a better fit for me personally. I think we are going to have a pretty good team and be competitive."

Asked what his role would be with the Nationals, Estrada said, "The best player is going to play. I know they gave Lo Duca a pretty nice contract. I signed kind of a backup deal. From my understanding, who ever plays best is going to get the bulk of the playing time. I know they wanted a left-handed bat in that lineup. That's what I bring to table. Bottom line is, everywhere I go, I try to make the team into a winner."

Estrada had his biggest success in Atlanta. In 2004, Estrada had his best season, hitting .314 with nine home runs and a career-high 76 RBIs. He was an All-Star and won the Silver Slugger Award that same season.

Signing Estrada, a lifetime .280 hitter in seven big league seasons, at this late date is similar to when infielders Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young became members of the Nationals last February. The market dropped for Estrada, and Washington was willing to take a chance on him. Estrada made $3.4 million last year.

Hot Stove

The Nationals will be Estrada's fourth team in four seasons. Last year, he played for the Brewers and hit .278 with 10 home runs and 54 RBIs. After the season, Estrada had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and a bone spur removed from his right elbow. He said Tuesday that the knee is 100 percent and that he is throwing 140 feet in a throwing program.

"I'm getting stronger every day I throw. I feel great. I put something on it," Estrada said. "There's no doubt that I'll be ready for Spring Training."

After Estrada's surgery, Milwaukee traded him to the Mets for reliever Guillermo Mota. But after they acquired catcher Brian Schneider from the Nationals as part of a trade for outfielder Lastings Milledge, the Mets decided to non-tender Estrada.

With Estrada on board, it will most likely mean that backup catcher Jesus Flores will start the season in the Minor Leagues. Both Bowden and manager Manny Acta have said in the past that they do not want Flores to spend another year on the bench.

A Rule 5 Draft pick, Flores impressed the Nationals during his rookie season. He hit .244 with four home runs and 25 RBIs in 2008, and found himself in a platoon with Schneider during the month of September.

"He is going to develop into a No. 1 catcher," Bowden said in December. "In an ideal world, do I think a player that was in Class A ball, in the Rule 5 Draft and went to the big leagues as a backup catcher should be thrown in the No. 1 role? No, I don't think that is the best way to develop a player."

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