Cause For ConcernS.O.B.: Trades that increase payroll = giving away young players for older. You may not realize it, but you're not arguing for spending money to give the plan a chance; you're arguing for abandoning the plan. You're arguing for more trades like Bray/Harris/Thompson/Majewski for Kearns/Lopez. Those moves move us further away from contending, not closer.
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, September 17, 2008; E01
Ted Lerner sat in Nationals Park last night, as fascinated with his team and as optimistic about it, despite its 57-93 record, as he has ever been. "Our objective has been the same since the first day," he said. "We are creating a fine organization from top to bottom and we think we're going in the right direction."
All around the Lerner family, however, are members of the organization who are starting to worry. Not mutiny. Not doubting his family's pledges two years ago to do what was necessary to build a champion. But fretting. A lot. With good reason. The future of the franchise, which seemed so bright on Opening Night in a new ballpark, has turned progressively darker as this injury-demolished year has dragged toward its end.
That is the nature of such a season. Patience is tested. Cracks show. Can you stick with a plan that you believe is sound? But flexibility is also tested. Can a billionaire, steeped in conservative business practices, adapt that plan -- accelerate it or emphasize parts that become more urgent -- as circumstances demand?
Will he and his family spend the money that's necessary to give The Plan a fair chance? Will Washington, which built his team a lovely park, be given a good-faith chance for a return on its social investment?
We'll find out, because the Nats are being severely stress-tested. In the March 30 opener on South Capitol Street, Ryan Zimmerman, the face of the franchise, hit a game-winning home run that symbolized the hopes of a franchise whose revenue would rise enormously this year in a $611 million, District-built playpen. What could go wrong?
Now, the tone of the team, from executives to the clubhouse, has begun to alter as the club wrings its hands that ownership has not made a single investment in a prime free agent over the last two winters or made an important trade that increased payroll. Is the support there?
"We are making money," said one player, "but it doesn't look like we are spending money."S.O.B.: Why the anonymous quote?
The Nats entered this season with the game's 26th-ranked payroll. After subtracting Paul Lo Duca, Felipe López, Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala and, if he doesn't recover from arm miseries, Chad Cordero, that budget for '09 may fall by nearly $20 million from its current $55 million.S.O.B.: You're cherry-picking shamelessly. Yes, these players' salaries for 2008 add up to around $20 million, but Zimmerman's headed to arbitration, so his salary number will jump by at least $5 million, and Guzman's salary will double from $4 to $8 million. So that's $9 of your $20 million already committed. Redding's arb eligible, so he'll see a significant raise from his $1 million. Colome will get a little more. And with the Harris, Perez, and Boone free agents they'll have to spend to fill those gaps because they don't really have options in house.
I'd like to see more (smart) spending too, but you weaken the argument by presenting half-truths. Further, you're weakening your case by setting the bar so low at $55 million. But really, who of this group are you really sad to see go?
Will the same roster be back next season, with minor alterations, trusting merely to better health to produce a vastly better record? Is that how you revive a fan base that has become so somnolent that only 21,759 -- the second-smallest crowd of the season -- attended Monday's matchup of future Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez and the Nats' best young pitcher, John Lannan?S.O.B.: No, of course not. I'd start by firing the guy who's picking the players and bring in someone who doesn't have a 15-year track record of failure.
The mood that surrounds the Nats could change in a day. If a Mark Teixeira, Adam Dunn, Ben Sheets or CC Sabathia signs as a free agent, views will change fast. "This offseason, we're going to give consideration to going to other places we haven't been," Lerner said last night, certainly hinting, as the Nats tend to do, but again not promising. "But it has to make sense."S.O.B.: How exactly will the mood change if we sign one of these players? Best case, one of these guys will bring us 4-5 extra wins. Realistically, fewer, especially the starting pitchers. But what impact on attendance would there be if this team was on pace for merely 95 losses? How would the mood be better?
Tex is a fine hitter, but why commit to him for 8-9 years, when he's going to be in steep decline at the end, when our very best prospect is a first baseman, when we actually have two guys under contract for next year that would give us league-average offense at 1B? Sabathia will command a similar 8-9 year deal. Contracts of that length are always a huge risk given the injury risk of any pitcher. Sheets is just crazy--the last thing we need is another player who is guaranteed to hit the DL every year for an extended time. And Adam Dunn is your idea of flexibility to change the mood? Surely you jest. Between the defense, the strikeouts, and the Reds connection, he'd be despised.
The Nats are still furious that they didn't sign their first-round draft choice -- No. 9 overall pick Aaron Crow.S.O.B.: Good. Does that mean they're going to fire the buffoon who blew the negotiation?
"That one is not our fault. What he wanted was way out of line," said one Nat who otherwise has doubts about the team's willingness to spend. Next year, when the Nats may have the top pick overall, as well as pick No. 9a to replace Crow, Lerner vows, "We will do everything humanly possible to get our top pick signed."S.O.B.: OK so if you want to make an issue of spending, why don't you call this anonymous source (Bowden) on this shit? A $4.4 million one-time bonus for a blue-chip talent in MLB is not not not out of line. It's cheap. Averaged out over the first 3 years of his career when we'd have been able to pay him the MLB minimum, we're talking about maybe $2 million a year. That's Wily Mo Pena money. Ronnie Belliard money. Rob Mackowiak money.
According to sources, the Nats are already willing to make trades of the kind that add perhaps $6 million to $8 million a year to payroll. But some potentially bigger signings, like a groundswell to beat the Dodgers in the bidding for Andruw Jones last winter, have met resistance at the top.S.O.B.: You're complaining that the team didn't sign a guy who has a .158 batting average? Thank god that resistance was there. The only thing that would have made this season an even greater debacle would have been signing Andruw Jones. You're making Lerner's argument for him.
"I have never turned down anything that [Nationals president Stan Kasten] has directly recommended to me," Lerner said.
That's fine. But it's not exactly the same tone of voice from the boss as, "Let's go get a couple of good players and build this team a little faster, guys."S.O.B.: You've now completely left the realm of reality. Baseball is a business. They didn't buy the team as an act of civic philanthropy. I really hope you didn't say this to Lerner, because it's such a foolish, naive, idiotic thing to say that he must have just laughed in your face.
It's difficult to tell a genial but imposing business titan that you'd like him to reach deeper in his pocket, especially if you work for him. And, according to Lerner, not one person, either fan or employee, has said anything to him this season except, "Good job."
So, for variety, I said: "Fine businessmen tend to make bad owners. To win, you must try to lose -- money."
Lerner laughed. It's easy to see why he's liked, but also seldom contradicted -- at least to his face. So, let me help.
"A 'plan' has more than a first sentence," one member of the Nats' front office said. "We're developing our farm system and making trades. But there is the third way you get players, too." Let's see, that would be free agents.S.O.B.: We've signed free agents. And some good ones too. Redding and Perez are a hell of a lot better than the big money options, Zito and Silva. We signed the most expensive catcher available, and we saw how that worked out.
What we haven't done is sign long-term blockbuster types who will be in decline by the time the team is really ready to contend if the rest of The Plan goes right. Those players also cost draft picks. You're arguing for a strategy that would delay the arrival of the first great Nationals team in order to lock in an endless cycle of 70-75 win seasons. Haven't you seen enough of that from Baltimore?
Reasonable people can disagree on the argument that I'm making here, but you have to acknowledge that type-A free agents have downsides. And if you go sign guys like Andruw Jones, the downsides are massive.
"We're doing a lot of things right. But when you're rebuilding a team, you need to add at least one player from the outside every year, sometimes with a trade that adds to your payroll," said a key member of the team's staff.S.O.B.: I'll give you credit for some good reporting. This kind of quote I haven't seen from Zimmerman. It's depressing as all get out, but good reporting.
Many will mutter but, so far, only one -- Zimmerman -- says, "Okay, quote me." That's because he's the one National who most wants to stay in Washington and be part of a winner here. So, logically, he is also the man most worried that it doesn't seem to be happening yet.
"I love it here. It would be so much fun to win in Washington. And it's close to home" in Virginia Beach, Zimmerman said. "But every player in this game is the same. Most of all, you want to win. If it looks like we're going to lose 90 games every year . . . I'm not going to play here my whole career if we're not going to win."
Zimmerman's not leaving anytime soon. He won't be a free agent for three years, though he's eligible for arbitration this offseason. And he makes it clear he's not unhappy that he hasn't signed a long-term contract. Before this season, the Nats offered him what he considers "a fair deal," similar to that of Rockies star Troy Tulowitzki. But he wants to prove he's worth even more, like Hanley Ramírez of the Marlins.S.O.B.: Did he say that? I doubt he let the name Hanley Ramirez slip. But again if you're going to harp on spending this off-season, re-signing Zimmerman long-term would be a smart place to focus, rather than complaining that they didn't blow $36.2 million on the worst starting position player in MLB.
Let's look at it. First, there's a huge gap between those two guys' deals. Ramirez got 6 years and $70 million. Tulowitzki got 6 years and $31 million. Second, Tulo signed that contract when he was still over 2 years away from arbitration and 5 from free agency. At the same point in Zimmerman's service time, the Nationals didn't have an owner. So the opportunity to negotiate a deal like that never existed for the Lerners. Had Bowden held Zimmerman back in the minors till the last week of May in 2006 the way the Reds held back Jay Bruce and the Brewers held back Ryan Braun, Zimmerman would still be a year away from arbitration, and when the Lerners bought the team they would have had a chance to negotiate a Tulo-like long-term deal at an annual salary discount. But Bowden didn't do that--he brought Zimmerman up to ride the pine in Sept., 05 and then left him up through a rough rookie slump at the start of '06. Either way, offering Zimmerman going into year 3 a Tulo-type deal wasn't fair or serious. That was a low-ball offer, and you should call them on it.
Ramirez signed his contract at a similar service time point that Zimmerman is at now, so he's more comparable. Of course, Zimmerman isn't quite the player Hanley is. But let's say Zimmerman will sign for 6 years and $55 or 60 million? The Nationals would be dumb not to do that. Wait three years till Zimmerman's going into his age 27 season and bid against the Red Sox-Yankees axis of evil, and you could easily be paying double that.
Lerner knows his mind and, while he welcomes input, doesn't change it often on basic precepts. "We're not taking any profits for 10 years and we'll make appropriate player moves at the right time," he said. "That's not including the money [more than $40 million] that we put into upgrading the park. That was a [one-time] cash contribution for extras."S.O.B.: Frankly, no one who understands business expect this. The Lerners would be stupid to damage the value of their property by strangling the team's (smart) spending, but to expect that they aren't going to take a profit is silly. Again, baseball is a business, not a public trust. If you want to root for a baseball team that's uncorrupted by rank capitalism, there's a damn good Cuban squad to cheer for.
As for attendance, now averaging 29,379 and ranked 19th in baseball -- disappointing to many observers for a new park in a sizable market -- Lerner says, "We met all our objectives on realistic numbers. We expected to draw 2.2 to 2.4 million and we'll end up at 2.3 million. We've reduced prices on 7,500 seats for next season."
"It takes time to build a club," says Lerner, tapping his finger on the railing in front of him, "but the money we are taking in is not going anywhere but into this team."
That's what everyone hopes. And expects.