Nationals, Kearns agree on extension
Team locks up outfielder for three years, avoids arbitration
WASHINGTON -- Outfielder Austin Kearns acknowledged that he was shocked when the Reds traded him to the Nationals as part of an eight-player deal on July 13, 2006. The trade meant he was leaving his family and home in Lexington, Ky., which is about 82 miles from Great American Ball Park.
But whatever reservations Kearns had back in July vanished on Thursday, when he agreed to a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension. Kearns will make $3.5 million in 2007, $5 million in 2008 and $8 million. There also is a club option for 2010 worth $10 million or a $1 million buyout. Kearns was accompanied by his wife, Abby, when the announcement was made at Nationals headquarters on Washington Square.
"I've adjusted here pretty quick. I like this area," Kearns said. "I think the fans are great here. I told many people here, 'If you come to the ballpark, you would never believe that we were in last place.' You would never think about that because of the fans' support. I'm not surprised that I'm here. I feel comfortable here. I feel good about where it's going."
The signing means that Kearns avoids two years of salary arbitration and possibly two years of free agency if the club picks up the option. Right-handers John Patterson and Chad Cordero are the only players on the Nationals who are arbitration-eligible.
"We are eager to invest in long-term building blocks," team president Stan Kasten said. "We hope to acquire many more building blocks. We are just trying to avoid short-term moves, quick fixes that ultimately set you back. I just have a strong feeling about that."
Kearns, 26, is coming off a season in which he hit .264 with 24 home runs and 86 RBIs in 150 games. It was the first time he played a full season in the Major Leagues. Injuries and a stint in the Minor Leagues prevented him from playing no more than 112 games in a season prior to 2006.
In addition to his developing prowess at the plate, Kearns also is considered a very good defensive right fielder. He is known to play shallow to avoid bloopers from dropping in for base hits.
"He's a complete player. He is like ... Ryan Zimmerman," general manager Jim Bowden said. "Austin can play the game from both sides. He is really special. He is just 26 years old. His best years are ahead of him. Philosophically as a general manager, I always like buying free-agent years. I don't like a player going on the market or going on the last year of his contract. I like assets if you can get them at the right numbers and the right deal. From a business perspective, I would rather give a player security and get numbers under the arbitration system."
The process of a new deal for Kearns began a few days ago, with Kearns talking to Bowden, Kasten and principal owner Mark Lerner in Washington about their plans for attempting to build a championship team. Kearns also said that it helped to have Bowden in the organization. It was Bowden, then the Reds' GM, who drafted Kearns in the 1998 First-Year Player Draft.
"I think [the Nationals are] a lot closer [to being a championship club] than people realize. I'm really glad to be a part of that -- my family committing to it and the organization committing to me," Kearns said. "We have a good core group. I think guys like Zim, Chief [Cordero], Nick [Johnson], [Brian] Schneider and Patty [Patterson]-- I don't think people actually realize the talent that is already here and how close this thing can get to where we want it."
Kearns will be the everyday right fielder and bat in the middle of the order in 2007. For now, with Johnson not expected to be ready for Spring Training or Opening Day, Kearns is expected to hit cleanup, according to manager Manny Acta.
"[Signing Kearns] is a step in the right direction," Acta said. "He is a person I've admired and feared from the other side of the dugout. He is capable of hitting 25 home runs and driving in 100 runs."
Kearns' ability wasn't the only thing that convinced the Nationals to give him an extension. They loved his character and the fact that he never complained about spacious RFK Stadium.
"Austin wasn't one that complained," Bowden said. "Ryan Zimmerman has never complained about it. It tells you a little bit about a player's character. They are here to play baseball and win, regardless of the stadium.
"Austin doesn't play for the money. He just wants to win."
In terms of room for improvement, hitting coach Mitchell Page said recently that he would like to see Kearns go to right field and the right-center-field gap much more because of his tendency to pull the ball.
"He has a couple of holes that cause him to fly off," Page said recently. "I want to keep him back behind the ball. He has already shown that he can hit the ball to right-center field -- I just want him to be more consistent, driving the balls in the gap and letting everything else take over."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.