JUPITER, Fla., March 31 -- Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden worked for more than 10 years under many of the same restrictions he faces in his new job. The Cincinnati Reds, Bowden's former employers, were owned for nearly that entire time by the late Marge Schott, notorious for being, let's say, careful with her money. Bowden tells stories about Schott bringing in the leftover donuts she bought for the media, and selling them to employees at marked-up prices.
"I overpaid for that donut," Bowden said. "It was a good donut, but I overpaid for it."
Welcome to Washington, where Major League Baseball -- which owns the Nationals -- has allotted $50 million for the team's payroll. The 30 players who are likely to be on the roster for Monday's season opener in Philadelphia -- 25 active and five on the disabled list -- earn just more than $48.9 million. That total will go down when some players come off the disabled list and others are sent to the minors. But it is likely to be the third-lowest in the National League, ahead of only Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.
So even as the team finally reached a television deal and baseball worked out an agreement that compensates the Baltimore Orioles because the Nationals moved into the area, the only development that will truly set the course for this team remains unresolved: Who will the owner be?
"We have a set budget, and I'm within that budget," Bowden said. "I think a lot of factors have to change. New ownership can change it overnight. Dramatically increased revenue from what was budgeted can increase that. There's a lot of factors."
The Nationals' unique situation showed up in their roster moves over the winter, and it could affect transactions in 2005 and beyond. Last November, the Nationals signed two free agents to multiyear contracts: third baseman Vinny Castilla for two years and $6.2 million, shortstop Cristian Guzman for four years and $16.8 million. But in seven potential arbitration cases, all settled prior to the two sides submitting figures, they didn't sign anyone beyond this year. Those cases included outfielder Brad Wilkerson and catcher Brian Schneider, considered two important pieces of the team's future.
Last season, the franchise's final year as the Montreal Expos, former general manager Omar Minaya signed second baseman Jose Vidro through 2008 and Opening Day starter Livan Hernandez through 2007. They tried to reach agreements with shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who was eventually traded to Boston, and then with Wilkerson.
Signing Wilkerson or Schneider to a long-term contract, however, would be making commitments to players that new owners would be responsible for keeping.
"Certainly, we don't want to put a lot of exposure on the books for the new owners," Bowden said. "Any time you make a move like that, it changes the books dramatically."
The books will likely change dramatically in the next offseason. Schneider, who will make $2 million this year, and Wilkerson, signed for $3.05 million, will be eligible for arbitration again. Should those two progress this season as the club hopes, they would be in line for significant raises in arbitration once more.
Would they sign long-term deals if offered?
"It's something I'm not even thinking about right now," Wilkerson said Thursday. "I wouldn't even be interested in doing it until they get the new owners in."
Schneider, too, understands the ownership situation. Like Wilkerson, he has spent his entire career with the franchise. Front-office officials have discussed approaching Schneider's agent about working something out soon, but with no new owner, they have held off.
Schneider's feelings are simple.