With the official free agent signing period beginning on Friday, Baseball Prospectus's John Perrotto posted his free agency preview yesterday (password required), and the Nationals, you will be shocked to learn, were one of the most prominently mentioned teams in the article.
Perrotto actually goes way out on a limb and predicts that the Nationals will sign Mark Teixeira, a Maryland native, for 10 years and $200 million. He also mentions the Nationals as major suitors for Adam Dunn and A.J. Burnett.
The cynical, Needhamian response would be to just dismiss it all with an eye-rolling comment like, "Anyone who thinks Uncle Teddy's going to open his wallet and give 10 years and $200 million is a fecking moron. Tex gets that kind of money from the Nationals right after pigs fly and Elijah Dukes donates his salary to a battered women's shelter."
And that's certainly a legitimate point of view, shared by Boz and many others. Until the Nationals go out and break the bank on a big-time free agent, they will be vulnerable to this kind of argument. Nevermind that the team has been right in passing on blockbuster free agents in the two off-seasons (Barry Zito, anyone?). Nevermind that the truly dumb cheapness has been in their refusal to re-sign their own young stars (Zimmerman) and failure to sign high-round draft picks (Crow, Sean Black)--neither of which would have had a dramatic impact on their 2009 major league payroll. There's a certain set that will always look at the lack of blockbuster free agents and nothing else and conclude that Lerners = cheap, ergo, Nationals stink.
But this article suggests that someone in the Nationals organization is at least sending smoke signals to the press that they are serious about pursuing one of these top-tier bats, which in itself is curious. From the start, Stan and the Lerners have preferred an unapologetic PR approach when it comes to the payroll--instead of faking interest, they come right out and say they're not going after these guys because it doesn't fit their plan. That plan, as you all know, is to develop a core of young, improving players via the draft and trades, and then only when that group of rising talent is close to contending do you sign big-time free agents to fill a couple gaps and put you in the playoffs.
So what's going on? One possibility is that Perrotto called Bowden, and that Jim gave him some hyperbolic, puffed up rap about what a big player in free agency the team will be. We know Jim will go off message and say patently fabricated things just to draw attention to himself. Of course, if this is what happened, it doesn't speak real well to Perrotto's reporting skills. He should know better than to take Jim's word for it on anything.
Another possible explanation is that the team has no more intention of inking a blockbuster deal now than they did two years ago, but has decided that it would be smart to give people the impression that they want to sign a big name but were rejected. So maybe they're out there throwing numbers just for show but when the rubber hits the road will drop out and let the Yankees or Cubs outbid them.
A third possibility is that the team actually thinks that the plan has in fact progressed to the point that they are now one or two blockbusters away from contending. This is what Ken Rosenthal of ESPN reported on Saturday. This is probably the scariest scenario, in that it would confirm beyond even my most cynical fears that our Bowden-led FO is totally incompetent when it comes to player evaluation and self-scouting. Under even the rosiest scenario, this team is nowhere near the playoffs.
Then a final possibility is that the team doesn't really think they're all that close, but that they're spooked by the abysmal attendance and TV/radio ratings and have decided to make a bigger play for attention by overpaying for a big name.
If that's the case, I'll be disappointed. The main downsides to a signing like this would be that you a) saddle yourself to a guy who most likely well play will for crappy teams but decline sharply and become an albatross as the rest of the team is finally getting good, b) block the young, talented players coming up through the system, c) lose a draft pick, and d) can't spend that money on other, better ways either now or down the line.
As I've said before, if there's one position on the team where it doesn't make sense for the team to do something rash, it's first base. First, it doesn't make sense to just give up on Nick Johnson. He's way too good of an offensive player to decide he's washed up at 30. Because of the extreme injury risk, I want the team to have a better plan B in place than Dmitri Young (that's why I think signing a guy like Dunn would make sense, because you can use him in the outfield or at first base, depending on Nick's health). Also, their number one prospect, Chris Marrero is a first-baseman. And there's no position where offensive players are more readily available than first base. It's not like we won't have other chances to sign a big bopper to play first if Nick and Marrero both wash out. So if you're going to break the bank, first base seems like a bad place to spend.
Honestly, if the team was going to go in this direction, of handing out huge long-term contracts to guys who will be albatrosses after age 37 or so, I would have rather they'd just paid Soriano. He had all the personality and charm to be someone you could root for even after he got old and started stinking up the joint.
Here's one upside I hadn't considered. If the team does hand out a $150-$200 million long-term deal for a guy like this, it will at least spare us (for a while) the boring, cynical, "the Lerners will never spend so what's the point" stuff that has come to dominate so much of the chatter in the Natmosphere. Maybe then instead of just looking at the payroll, people will have to think about whether the players on the field are any good, not just how much they make.