Avoiding Costly Moves
Monday, December 4, 2006
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Dec. 3 -- Two years ago, the Washington Nationals -- shackled with a minuscule budget issued by their owners, Major League Baseball -- signed Esteban Loaiza, a beleaguered right-hander, to a one-year, $2.9-million contract. The message was clear: We'll give you a place to rehabilitate your career, and you'll try to help us win games.
Last offseason, after Loaiza departed for a richer deal, the club signed Ramon Ortiz to a one-year, $2.5-million contract with much the same intentions.
As baseball's winter meetings open Monday, there will be new Loaizas and Ortizes there for the taking, pitchers needing new teams. But don't expect the Nationals -- coming off last-place finishes in their first two seasons in Washington -- to dole out a penny. The team says it has a plan to build up infrastructure even if it means the 2007 major league roster suffers, and even with money flying everywhere, club officials don't seem inclined to deviate.
"We're not going to make short-term decisions to improve our team by inches," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "We're more interested in improving our team by light years down the road. We will always listen, and kick the tires on any and all transactions that might give us a possibility to improve our long-term plan. But we're not looking for short-term fixes, because that could hurt the long-term fixes we really need to make."
Translation, Part I: Anyone hoping for low-end starters such as Bruce Chen or Jamey Wright to step to the podium this week and speak excitedly about playing in Washington should look elsewhere. The Nationals, in dire need of starting pitching, are far more likely to cobble together a group of a dozen hopefuls from within the organization and say, "Here's your chance," than they are to pay $4 million for an established-but-shaky major league starter.
Translation, Part II: Familiarize yourself with the names John Patterson, Mike O'Connor, Tim Redding, Beltran Perez and Shawn Hill. Oh, and throw in Matt Chico, Joel Hanrahan, Chris Michalak and Colby Lewis -- and those aren't even the long shots. There's the core group that, barring any unexpected signings or a trade, could make up the 2007 rotation.
Combined, those nine players have 160 major league starts and 46 victories. Tom Glavine, the veteran left-hander who last week re-signed with the New York Mets, has 635 starts and 290 wins all by himself.
"We are going to do the best we can to not rush players beyond what their capabilities are," Bowden said. "We're not going to rush players even if we have a dire major league need."
Both Bowden and team president Stan Kasten understand that fans will consider that the Nationals allowed their best player, left fielder Alfonso Soriano, to take the riches offered by the Chicago Cubs -- an eight-year, $136-million deal that is the gold standard of this offseason -- and expect that that money be allocated elsewhere. But club officials say, quietly, that's not likely to happen.
The thinking is three-fold. First, signing the best free agents, those classified as "Type A" such as Oakland Athletics left-hander Barry Zito, costs the new club draft choices. The Nationals instead want to stockpile draft choices because they believe that's the best way to rebuild their admittedly moribund farm system.
Second, allowing their own free agents to walk away -- as they did with outfielder Jose Guillen, who said Sunday he took a physical and is signing a one-year, $5 million contract with Seattle -- brings draft picks in return. The Nationals will receive a choice between the first and second rounds for Guillen, and will have one pick between the first and second round as well as the Cubs' second-rounder as compensation for losing Soriano.
Third, even though spending an extra $10 million or $15 million on player payroll for 2007 -- signing, for instance, a pair of poor to middling pitchers -- might mean more wins, front office members don't believe significant value should be placed on, say, winning 75 games instead of 65 when the ultimate goal, winning a World Series, would be just as far away.