Nationals Are Hamstrung Again

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

If baseball had a conscience, it would be ashamed. But it doesn't. So, it isn't. And, this time, it's the Nats who get it in the neck.

Esteban Loaiza, who led the Nationals in quality starts last season, is now an Oakland Athletic. If Washington had an owner (one will presumably be named before the next presidential election cycle), the Nats would have had the choice in recent weeks to make a competitive offer to the classy free agent. Maybe they would have matched Oakland's offer of $21.375 million for three years. Or, perhaps, they wouldn't have. Loaiza will be 34 soon. The Nationals' brass grumbled about his non-work ethic all season. And a 12-10 record with a 3.77 ERA when half your games are in cavernous RFK doesn't make you a Hall of Famer.

But a Nats franchise with an owner would have had the option of making an aggressive bid. In reality, they didn't. Washington's final offer to Loaiza ($8 million for two years) was somewhere between a joke and an insult. So, the team's third-best pitcher of '05 is gone. Here's hoping everybody enjoyed last summer's pennant race at RFK Stadium. Don't bet on another one anytime soon, not the way baseball has bound and gagged the Nats from head to toe and left them marooned as 29 other teams wheel, deal, sign and trade around the clock.

Hardly a day goes by that the Nats' hamstrung front office doesn't get whiplash from watching some NL East rival improve itself. Yesterday the Mets signed super southpaw reliever Billy Wagner away from the Phils. Last week, the Mets gobbled up Carlos Delgado from the Marlins. Last year, the Nats finished two games behind the Mets. Next year, Washington will need divine intervention to get within 10 games of New York.

And that's a baseball crime. Because if ownership had been in place on any decent timetable, the Nats would have been in position to greatly increase their budget for '06 and might have been in the hunt for almost any player in the game they desired.

Why does this matter so much at this particular moment? Because the Nationals believe that they still have a chance to sign the winter's premier starting pitcher, A.J. Burnett of Florida. According to industry sources, Burnett's price has been $50 million for five years. Some Nats' decision makers, including those who were cool toward Loaiza at $7 million a year, would have been delighted to push all their owner's chips onto the table for a talent like Burnett at $10 million a year.

"The problem isn't that we lost our third-best pitcher at a price that we thought was too high. The issue is much bigger than that," one Nats executive said. "Pretty soon, we may not be able to get the best pitcher on the market if the asking price reaches a point where only an owner's prerogative [to pay a fat contract] would let us get the deal done."

Currently, big league officials authorize the Nats to make bids to players. But, let's get serious, what is the underlying principle behind the Nats' contracts that Bud & His Boys will allow? Any deal has to be at levels that MLB deems sensible. Never, ever do anything that might drive up the game's salary structure. So, the Nats can sign anybody they want. As long as he's lying in the remainders bin or the damaged-goods box. That's where GM Jim Bowden found Loaiza and Jose Guillen last year. He signed them late and cheap because nobody else wanted them much. But can lightning strike again?

The Nats will never get authorization to make a deal that matches the contracts now being dished out. The high end of the market is already shot to hell. The nuttiest deal arrived yesterday, when the Blue Jays signed former Oriole reliever B.J. Ryan for $47 million for five years. (Honest.) B.J.'s a fine fellow; glad he hit the lottery. But he's only had one stellar season as a closer. O-n-e. Also, he has had problems maintaining his self-confidence. What will the expectations that accompany a mammoth contract do to his psyche? Also, his eccentric delivery tends to get out of sync. Will Oriole coaches, familiar with his motion, be on hand to fix him? Finally, his herky-jerky delivery does not inspire the thought "longevity." In a day, the Jays have blown up the market for pitchers. If B.J. is worth $47 million, how much is A.J. worth?

The answer, unfortunately: More than the Nats can probably get authorization to pay in the absence of a real team owner.

Washington may still be able to trade for pitching help -- perhaps Javier Vazquez. Maybe a Scott Boras client, such as Kevin Millwood or Jarrod Washburn, will be left standing as the game of free agent musical chairs winds down in January. But that's probably dreaming. The Nats have lost a player who was, to them, inordinately valuable. Loaiza ate innings. He pitched on short rest if asked. Seldom spectacular, he was always sturdy. If Livan Hernandez was the staff's marquee name and John Patterson its ascendant star, then Loaiza was the steady stalwart, the consummate third starter who can help change a mediocre team into an entertaining and competitive club.

For conspiracy theorists, these are rich days for intrigue. Is baseball punishing Washington's team because the D.C. Council is standing up to the game in its current acrimonious stadium negotiations? Is this how baseball plays hardball with towns that show a backbone? To enter the sport and join the happy monopolists, do you have to kiss the commissioner's ring?

"Please, don't give the people who run this game that much credit for planning anything," one well-placed veteran baseball executive said yesterday. "Bud's trademark is delaying decisions as long as he can. For him, there is no decision that is not too good to be postponed."

Sometimes that dithering, or consensus building, actually works. Right now, it isn't.

The loss of Loaiza is just the latest of many indignities for Washington fans in the last year. All the goodwill that baseball -- the game -- has engendered in this area is constantly undermined by the ill will that is bred by baseball -- the business.

Relations between the town and the sport have become so bad that, for the first time, in recent days there has been talk that baseball might not object if Washington simply abandoned its plans for a gaudy ballpark by the Anacostia River and, instead, constructed a first-rate stadium beside RFK. No, such a ballpark would not have the potential sociological and urban-planning benefits that the mayor's dreams embody. But baseball doesn't care about what's good for the District.

"It's an urban myth that new ballparks have to be like Camden Yards, with restaurants and entertainment nearby, in order to be successful," one baseball executive said. "Look at Anaheim, Dodger Stadium and Yankee Stadium. Those are three of the biggest drawing ballparks in baseball. Is there any gentrified urban infrastructure near any of them?"

On a bitter day for baseball in the District, it's a sobering, but possibly useful, thought.


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