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Correction to This Article
A Jan. 27 Sports column incorrectly said that outfielder Juan Rivera is with the Washington Nationals. Rivera played with the Montreal Expos before they became the Nationals but was traded in the offseason.
Thomas Boswell

Nats Are Beating O's To the Punch

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, January 27, 2005; Page D01

Every winter in the lucky locales that have two big league teams, there is a war for the hearts and wallets of fans.

From New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to the San Francisco Bay, these offseason battles to sign free agents and make major trades are an annual ritual. The ability to pull off such complex personnel moves, or botch them, helps define rivalries, generates year-round interest in baseball and, ultimately, shifts fan loyalties and attendance toward the winner.

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. (File Photo)

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In the huge Washington-Baltimore market, the first offseason competition between the low budget, no-owner, juggle-on-a-shoestring Nationals and the rich, out-to-sign-more-stars Orioles is almost finished. Before the new Nats ever play a game in the District, they have already scored a stunning offseason knockdown of the Orioles.

With spring training less than three weeks away, the Orioles are flat on their backs. Despite having two co-general managers and a wealthy owner, the Birds have been completely shut out from any moves of consequence. On Tuesday, Carlos Delgado joined Carl Pavano and Richie Sexson on the list of players who have said no to Baltimore bids.

"Disappointed? I'm not," said owner Peter Angelos, maintaining that the Orioles bid as high as they thought was prudent.

"I don't think we can sit here and say we're not disappointed," Orioles Executive Vice President Jim Beattie said.

Ah, the wonders of seamless internal communication. Perhaps Mike Flanagan was just semi-disappointed.

Now, what's left in the remainder bin for the Orioles? Magglio Ordo�ez, the slugger who had two surgeries on his left knee last year? By now, all the solid bets are now off the table. Only out-and-out gambles remain.

The only good news for Orioles fans is that former Aruban knight Sidney Ponson has presumably sworn off personal water vehicles forever. That alone, however, may not be enough to prevent an eighth consecutive losing season in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the Nats, who looked like an overmatched featherweight, have given their new fans -- as well as all of this market's undecided voters -- more than they could reasonably have imagined. Sometimes, apparently, one interim general manager with no owner to please can be better than two general managers who must report to an owner who's often larger than life.

Nats GM Jim Bowden has done an admirable job of minimalist renovation on the old Expos fixer-upper. This winter, he's added the reigning NL RBI champion, Vinny Castilla (35 homers, 131 RBI), at third base and a new right fielder, Jose Guillen, who hit 27 homers and drove in 104 runs for the Angels last year. Bowden has also added one of the better all-around young shortstops in Cristian Guzman, an excellent fielder who hit .274. That in itself would have been a fine winter's work.

But just when it looked as though the Nats would be blanked in their attempt to add a creditable starting pitcher, they signed veteran Esteban Loaiza last week. He won 21 games in '03 and was 9-5 with the White Sox in '04 before a late-season slump as a Yankee.

There's a hole in the r�sum� of every new Nat. Castilla has altitude-inflated Denver numbers. Guillen has a reputation as a clubhouse problem. Guzman seldom walks. Except for one season, Loaiza has merely been a .500 pitcher who eats up innings.

But what can you expect? Bowden has no clue what kind of players the Nats' future owners will want or at what pay rates or for how many years. Besides, MLB wants the Nats' payroll to remain low to help attract the highest bids from potential owners. So, Bowden has had to sign players at reasonable or cheap prices and, except for Guzman, to short-term contracts.

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