Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

What the Washington Nationals can learn from the Philadelphia Phillies’ mistakes

Alex Brandon/Associated Press - For Ryan Howard and the Philadelphia Phillies, it was a painful end to the season.

Now, the check for 2011 arrives. Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox, that’ll be $536,846,820, please. In light of the last 10 days, no tip is required.

The Yankees have now paid $2 billion over 11 years for one victory parade. The Red Sox look at names like John Lackey and Carl Crawford and wonder if they’ll be paying them forever or just until the crack of doom.

And the Phillies just saw Ryan Howard crumple on the final out of their 1-0 loss to the Cards as they got booted out of October. As his five-year, $125 million contract extension kicks in, Howard, his team announced Saturday, has a torn Achilles’ tendon.

It’s time for a cost-benefit rethink for teams with baseball aspirations. 

In particular, do the Nationals really want to go down anything remotely akin to the gilded path that’s been taken by their NL East rival Phillies?

Take one look at Jayson Werth, a good player but one already attacked by his own $126 million contract, and their answer should be “No.”

Soon after the Nats signed Werth, one of baseball’s most successful executives said: “Do you know what this means? Once you start down that road, how many teams ever turn back? Now, they almost have to extend Ryan Zimmerman. What’s that, $100 million? Then they have to put a team around them or none of it makes sense. They just crossed their Rubicon.”

But, sometimes, you should slow down. For the Nats, now is that time. When $100 million names such as Jose Reyes, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, who don’t really match the Nats’ current needs, are mentioned, just say, “Pass.” When pretty-good pitchers like C.J. Wilson are coveted simply because they’re the best of what’s in stock, say, “Nope.”

Don’t be cheap. Oh, there’s no going backward, not with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Bryce Harper and others bringing paying customers to South Capitol Street. The Nats’ payroll, in the mid-$60 millions, is barely higher than it was when the Lerner family bought the team from MLB in ’06 and is now ranked 21st in the game; it should be 50 percent higher on some future day. There are 12 teams with $100 million payrolls and there will, occasionally, be years when the Nats should join them.

But there’s no rush.

As the Nationals think about offseason decisions that impact future years, they now have valuable info to digest: Money still doesn’t ensure happiness in baseball. For roughly $166 million in payroll, about $100 million more than the Nats, the Phils just bought agony and a closing window of opportunity.

As the aging, gaudy, lopsided 102-win Phillies were crashing, the rest of the National League East was waiting for the black box to be pulled from the wreckage to see what cautionary lessons could be learned. The better to dump the Phils, the division champs the last five years, as fast as possible.     

When the Nats won eight of their last 10 games against the Phils, it seemed fluky, especially the last four with the Phils coasting after clinching. And ’12 still seems too soon for a showdown. But, for the first time, you can circle ’13, when Strasburg is off an innings limit and Harper may arrive, and claim it’s just as plausible as ’14 for a collision between these franchises.

How do the Nats get better? The right last-piece-of-the-puzzle free agent at the right time is always a dream answer, like the Braves breaking their bank to sign Greg Maddux to add to John Smoltz and Tom Glavine.

That time doesn’t seem to be now, though General Manager Mike Rizzo says the team’s offseason needs are a starting pitcher to join his top two plus a middle-of-the-order bat. Feel free to shock us. But there are other options.

If the Nats want to know where to look, they could turn their eyes toward St. Louis, where the new Busch Stadium (built from the same blueprints) has identical playing characteristics to the Nats. If you desperately need more offense, do it the way the Cards led the NL in runs — with better batting averages and on-base percentages around your core sluggers.

What do Skip Schumaker, Yadier Molina, Ryan Theriot, David Freese, Jon Jay and Nick Punto have in common? They only hit homers every 30, 40 or 100 at-bats, but they all hit from .271 to .305 — higher than any Nats player except Mike Morse and Zimmerman. The Nats’ roster is loaded with clueless strikeout artists who need a reality check; learn to hit some singles.

The results of the last few weeks should also make the Nats doubly pleased that their executives in charge of the draft are Rizzo, Roy Clark and Kris Kline. The Braves may have folded in the final week, but their 89 wins and their future is real, and it’s largely built around drafts that Clark led when he was in Atlanta. The young D-backs won 94 games, took the NL West and forced the Brewers to the limit in their series. Kline and Rizzo tabbed lots of the draft picks that now dot the Arizona lineup.

You can’t prove the Nats blow-up-slot draft picks in ’10 and ’11 will pan out. No draft is ever as good as it seems to the guys who did the eyeballing. But the Nats scouts like Kasey McKeon have track records in other towns.

Ever since he got the GM job, Rizzo’s trademark has been the shock announcement. Nobody knew he was in the hunt for Aroldis Chapman (near miss) or Werth until those deals were done. The Nats should hope his surprise this winter doesn’t concern Rizzo himself. On the postseason trail, you find folks from Chicago who think that, if Boston’s Theo Epstein doesn’t end up running the Cubs as president and general manager, then maybe Rizzo, who grew up in and loves the Windy City, will end up there. Very doubtful.

However, the Nats have no more important offseason task than keeping Rizzo happy, which includes keeping his front office and scouting staffs at competitive levels. The Nats have needs, clearly in center field and at leadoff. And they finally have the talent surplus for major trades. So, the next few months are ripe for the franchise to improve.

But, as recent days underline, no new nine-figure players need apply. 

 
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