In their first two years running the Nationals, the Lerners and Stan Kasten operated on the shortest of short shoestring budgets. They've taken relentless flak, and they deserve it.
But it's hard to deny that after losing 100 games in 2008, Stan Kasten and the Lerners changed their approach to spending on players, at least a little bit. The question now: have they done enough that it's no longer accurate to say they're cheap?
Let's look closer at the spending. Starting in the winter of 2008-2009, they signed Adam Dunn, offered $180 million or so to Mark Teixeira, traded for Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen in a trade that was 100% about taking on salary. Then, they re-signed Ryan Zimmerman long-term, ponied up the record bonus needed to sign Stephen Strasburg, and didn't even try to dump Adam Dunn's salary at the trade deadline. Those may or may not have been all good decisions, but they were all more expensive decisions. Bottom line, that's a pretty healthy year of spending for most any team.
And this last off-season they didn't make any blockbuster deals (though if it's to believed they were right there for Aroldis Chapman), but they coughed up almost $30 million for Jason Marquis, Chien-Ming Wang, Ivan Rodriguez, and Matt Capps. That's not really a shopping spree, but it's surely not what skinflints do.
I would have liked to see another starter from the Jon Garland/Jarrod Washburn tier, and a lot of people seemed to have their hearts set on Orlando Hudson, but it seems to me that Rizzo had the money to get the guys he wanted--for better or worse.
Now, Boz says it's still the payroll, stupid. He points to the Nationals' $60m payroll, which exceeds only Florida's, Pittsburgh's and San Diego's. If the team had a bigger payroll, he says, they'd be better. And there's no excuse for that.
The problem is that it just doesn't quite work that way. Free agents are (all together now) by definition older, declining players. Teams lock up their best players long-term before they ever hit the market.
And it really is possible to make your team worse by spending. The top two contracts in the 2006 off-season went to Alfonso Soriano and Barry Zito. Only a few rungs cheaper were Gary Matthews, Jason Schmidt, and Juan Pierre. In 2007, five of the top eight contracts (not counting the not really available Mariano Rivera, A-Rod and Jorge Posada) went to Carlos Silva, Andruw Jones, Jose Guillen, Luis Castillo and Aaron Rowand. In 2008, the Yankees bought up Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. Those have worked out so far. But after that the top ten contracts includes major disappointments like Derek Lowe, Oliver Perez, Milton Bradley, Manny Ramirez, and Ryan Dempster.
We'll see how this past off-season's big contracts work out, but there are a lot of big contracts over the last few years that Boz publicly called on the team to hand out (and admittedly I wanted Derek Lowe), and the team would clearly be worse off if they had done it. Just look at Soriano. The Cubs are married to him at $20 million a year till he's 38. At age 33 he was already one of the worst LFs in the league.
Now, I have nits to pick on the team's spending. My biggest gripe is still the signability picks in the draft, like Trevor Holder. But I think Nationals fans actually have seen enough at this point to start to feel a little better about their team's willingness to spend.
Don't get me wrong--fans have every right to complain about whatever they like until they have a winner, and the Lerners deserve our wrath for what they've put us through. And I think Ted, Mark, and Stan would really really prefer to go back to the skinflint days and may do so anytime.
But, for now, on this one thing, I'm choosing to see the glass as half-full. (Take THAT Mr. Anonymous commenter who says I'm never positive about anything!)