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03/18/08 6:00 PM ET

Nationals demote Escobar, lose Cota

Catcher is free agent after refusing Minor League assignment

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Nationals reassigned outfielder Alex Escobar to Minor League camp after the team's 9-1 victory over the Tigers on Tuesday, and lost catcher Humberto Cota when he elected to become a free agent rather than go to the Minors.

Cota had a good spring with the bat, hitting .583 (9-for-16), but was mediocre behind the plate. Recently, Cota was unable to handle a perfect throw from outfielder Garrett Guzman on Sunday against the Orioles.

The move most likely means that Wil Nieves, a solid catch-and-throw guy, will be the backup catcher unless the team has a change of heart and goes with Jesus Flores instead.

Manager Manny Acta and general manager Jim Bowden have often said they wanted Flores to play every day with Double-A Harrisburg. Acta did say the team reserves the right to change its mind about Flores being in the Minor Leagues.

Escobar had a chance to be the fourth outfielder once Wily Mo Pena went down with an injury and Elijah Dukes became the regular left fielder, but Escobar had problems with the bat, going 3-for-29 (.103) with two RBIs. Still, Escobar, who hasn't played in a Major League game since 2006 because of injuries, was surprised by the move. He said he didn't get enough at-bats in Spring Training.

"I'm not swinging the bat. I have to work my way back," Escobar said. "I'm getting used to being on the field every day. It's a combination of everything."

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