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."
Many of Soriano's teammates desperately want him to be re-signed, but the risk of holding on to him for the rest of this season is clear. Keep him beyond July 31, and he may hit 50 homers, but the Nationals could lose him to free agency, receiving only a draft pick as compensation. Teams that can afford to spend money, have prospects to trade and could use a big bat in left field or at second base include the St. Louis Cardinals, the Los Angeles Angels, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets.
"But just because he's traded July 31 doesn't mean he's not signing with us in October," Kasten said. "Don't assume we wouldn't want him. We could also keep him July 31, without having signed him long-term, and still re-sign him after the season."
Kasten stressed he was speaking hypothetically, and he is loath to tip his hand on potential deals. Still, the players think about them.
"I like it here," said Vidro, who has spent each of his 15 seasons in pro ball with the franchise. "I made a commitment to stay here. I would love to. But at the same time, it's not the first time that it's happened to someone. I really don't know what to expect. I hear from some of the guys here. They make jokes about this and that."
Vidro, 31, is hitting .319 after a recent slump, but appears to have gotten over the knee problems that have dogged him for three years, making him a marketable commodity. He is signed through 2008, however, and will make $15 million over the final two years of his contract, a number that could scare off some potential suitors. Mets General Manager Omar Minaya, who signed Vidro to that contract when he held the same position with the Montreal Expos, has long loved the three-time all-star, and the Mets are unstable at second.
Hernandez, 31, appears to be rounding into form with wins in his last three outings after a horrendous start to the season. He will earn $8 million this season and $7 million next year, and could be attractive to almost any team that needs a reliable third or fourth starter who pitches at least seven innings almost every time out. His experience -- including World Series appearances in 1997 and 2002 -- could be an asset as well.
National League sources say Hernandez almost certainly couldn't bring a top-flight prospect such as Mets outfielder Lastings Milledge or pitcher Mike Pelfrey -- both called up to the majors recently -- or one of the many talented young players in the Angels' system, but he might command one or two that are a notch lower.
Guillen, who is on the disabled list with a hamstring problem and is hitting just .212, might be the easiest player to move, though he would bring the least in return. He makes $4 million and is coming off seasons in which he hit 24 and 27 home runs. Because he is a free agent after this season, teams might be willing to overlook the fact that he has a reputation as a clubhouse problem and treat him as a two-month rental. Guillen is already worried about where he might end up.
"I've told you so many times," Guillen said. "I want to finish my career here." But talks with the team on a contract extension broke off earlier this season.
So let the selling begin. For a model of how this might happen, look back to Kasten's first few years with the Atlanta Braves. In 1987, the Braves traded a 36-year-old pitcher named Doyle Alexander to Detroit, and Alexander helped the Tigers win the division title by going 9-0. In return, the Braves received a 20-year-old pitcher named John Smoltz, and he was in the rotation the following year. All Smoltz has done is win 181 games and saved 154 in what could be a Hall of Fame career.
As for signing marquee free agents, the Braves didn't pick one up until pursuing Greg Maddux for 1993, by which time they had been to two World Series.
So the plan is clear: Sell this year so that, in future seasons, they can be in position to buy. But don't think such a summer of rumors and transition won't have an impact on the 2006 team, even before the trades go down. Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, who doesn't know if he'll be back with the club next year, has been in the game long enough to see what rumors of a housecleaning can do.
"It can have a very bad effect on the ballclub and the individual, even if it's one individual in that clubhouse," Robinson said. "And especially a ballclub with a kind of fractured psyche, like we are."