Come July, Nationals Could Be a Top Seller

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

Over the next two months, fans will scan the baseball standings trying to figure out which teams are true playoff contenders and which are not. Baseball executives are no different. But depending on the day or the week, the health of one team or another, they look at those same standings a bit differently, and try to place the teams in one of two categories: buyer or seller.

Put incoming Washington Nationals president Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden on a street corner wearing placards that read, "Good talent. Not cheap." They could be the merchants with the most to sell this summer.

Two months of the Nationals' season have passed, and the team is on pace for 96 losses. Less than two months remain before the July 31 trading deadline. By that point, any or all of the team's marquee players -- most notably Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro, Livan Hernandez and Jose Guillen -- could be traded as part of a plan by Kasten and his bosses, new owner Theodore N. Lerner and his son Mark, to solidify the team's future by strengthening its player development department and minor league system.

In an era in which the majority of teams are flush with cash, not to mention one in which the wild-card race keeps perhaps two-thirds of teams hoping for a playoff spot deep into summer, the Nationals are in a rare spot, a seller identified by the end of May. They also have valuable pieces that could help other teams win a division, or more, all while bringing prospects in return.

"I think Washington will be one of the most scouted teams in the next couple months," said one scout this week.

Kasten, who will take over as the Nationals' president when the sale of the team to the Lerner family is completed, has been adamant that one of his first orders of business will be to help build the franchise's scouting and development departments. Pressed this week on whether that meant trading many of the team's stars, Kasten was noncommittal.

"I have a lot of evaluating to do," Kasten said, adding that personnel decisions will generally be handled by the general manager, "and I'm not a general manager." Kasten, though, hasn't announced whether Bowden will be back beyond this year, after which his contract runs out. Bowden has fallen in line with Kasten's pledge to build for the future.

"We're fortunate that we have lots of good players that people are interested in," Bowden said. "And anytime we can make a deal that's in the best long-term interests of this ballclub, we're going to make it."

Read: Trades are on the way.

Start with Soriano, who is off to a blistering start with 19 homers. After a flap about switching from second base to left field in the offseason, he has done nothing but win friends in Washington, working on improving his lackluster defense and becoming the Nationals' most electrifying offensive player.

For the Nationals to keep Soriano, they not only must decide that he is part of their rebuilding project, but they must convince him that playing in Washington is the best for his future. He is, as Bowden said, a "young 30," and he could easily command a contract in the range of five years and $65 million.

Asked this week if he would consider re-signing with Washington, Soriano said: "I haven't decided. I have four more months. I will have plenty of time after that to think about it, to see what I want to do."

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