An Embarrassment Of Pitches

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, January 26, 2007

This week, Ted Lerner said he thought this winter's expensive free agent signings "could take baseball out of control." His son Mark finds the current payroll explosion "shocking." They're both correct. But they should realize two things.

First, since 1976, when free agency arrived, baseball payrolls have gone out of control every few years, like clockwork. Perhaps Alex Rodriguez gets a $250 million deal. Or Chan Ho Park makes $15.5 million last season to go 7-7. In this era, that's just baseball's pox. When a new owner buys a club, part of his responsibility is to cope with that basic reality. Payroll isn't the fans' problem. The customer still has a right to expect a big league product for a big league ticket price -- especially in old RFK.

Second, if the Nationals' pitching rotation isn't significantly improved by Opening Day, the Lerner family runs the risk of fielding a team that could be even more "shocking" and "out of control" than the salary spiral. The Nats could be shockingly unprofessional, unworthy of the town they represent and the $611 million price of the team's new park.

Right now, the Nats' rotation is John Patterson plus Nobody Else. That is, unless you consider Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, Beltran Perez, Billy Traber and Mike O'Connor a staff. They won 10 games combined last year. If the often-injured Patterson can't stay healthy -- and he's never won more than nine games -- there's almost no limit to how bad this team could be. How many fans could that alienate? And why, for the sake of saving such a small amount of money, would you take such a risk?

Viewed from 30,000 feet, the Nationals aren't doing much wrong. The Lerners and team president Stan Kasten have a perfectly plausible grand plan for constructing a winning organization. Spend top dollar to sign scouts, coaches and young players. Voluntarily contribute at least $30 million to improvements in the new park that, the owners assume, will ultimately increase their fan base and thus pay for themselves. Forestall any big free agent signings until after the '07 season. Then use the anticipated new revenue from Nationals Park on the Anacostia to field an improving team when the Southeast project actually opens. The Lerners have even taken a public vow not to take "a dime out of the team for at least 10 years." Also, it doesn't hurt the Lerners' standing within ownership circles that they are sticking to the party line on sinful salaries.

"People will get tired of hearing about 'The Plan,' but it's the truth," Mark Lerner told The Post this week. "We know we'll get little hits from people who are a little impatient. But we're very enthusiastic."

"Little hits" won't be the Nats' problem this season. The big hits -- the one-hop triples up the gap, the upper-deck homers, the nights at RFK when the umpires wish that the big leagues had a 10-run mercy rule -- will be the ones that do the damage. And it's the endangered enthusiasm of Washington's new fan base -- not the enthusiasm of its owners -- that is at issue.

The Nationals can't cancel this season and turn a time machine forward to spring 2008, though by June they may wish they could. At the very moment when the local baseball market -- an ill-defined thing at best -- is forming its first impressions of the new owners, the team is perilously close to insulting a touchy town that has a thin skin after a 33-season gap without baseball.

The problem isn't Alfonso Soriano. Nobody expected the Nats to approach the Cubs' $138 million offer. Jose Vidro is classy, but he can be replaced. Even the memory of the team slamming the door behind popular ex-manager Frank Robinson may fade. But how many times do the Nats want to roll the dice after watching their attendance drop 20 percent last season?

During this offseason, the Nats took a big and unnecessary gamble. They decided they could ignore their own free agents Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas, the only Nats starters (along with Livan Hernandez) who won more than five games last year. That's f-i-v-e games. Pedro Astacio? Do without him, too. In their place, the Nats hoped to find cheap pitching available in late January. Not good pitching, just cheap -- a couple of 160-inning veteran stiffs to prevent the team from becoming tragicomic.

That inexpensive market for last-free-agent-standing pitchers never developed. This week, the Nats discovered that, with their bare-bones payroll, they couldn't even compete for humble free agent Tomo Ohka, Robinson's old feuding partner. Ortiz is gone. Armas is going. Of course, Roger Clemens and Jeff Weaver will go to contenders for a fortune. What's left? It's ugly: Jason Johnson (3-12) or Bruce Chen (0-7). Perhaps only two pitchers who suit the Nationals' modest innings-eating needs are still available, even in theory: Steve Trachsel (15-8, 4.97 ERA for the Mets) or Mark Redman (11-10, 5.71 ERA for the Royals).

But those established journeymen may earn $3 million to $4 million a year in the current inflated marketplace. The Nats are dreaming of finding pitchers who will accept half that. They don't exist. Who can you get for $1.5 million? Well, the Nats' new TV announcer, Don Sutton, is only 61. Once, asked if it was true he sometimes scuffed the ball with sandpaper or tore it on a buckle, Sutton said, "I'd wear a tool belt out there if they'd let me." If the Nats sign Gaylord Perry to do radio, get suspicious.

On Feb. 13, when pitchers (loosely defined) and catchers report, Washington will welcome 37 -- count them, 37 -- pitching vagabonds, orthopedic anomalies and surgical experiments to their training camp in Viera, Fla. If you don't immediately recognize some prime rotation "candidates" like Tim Redding, Jerome Williams, Joel Hanrahan and Brandon Claussen, there are reasons. Some have been out of the majors for years. Some just never arrived. Don't fault General Manager Jim Bowden. Within budget restraints, he's tried, though sending a contract to Satchel Paige's last known address may have been desperate.

The Nats expected to have a bad team in '07. The idea didn't bother them. They like the prospect of a high draft position. They think season ticket sales will be underpinned by the desire of fans to grab a place in line for tickets in the new park.

However, it now appears that the Lerners, coached by Kasten and not contradicted by Bowden, severely underestimated a worst-case scenario in which they might report to Florida without an actual major league pitching staff. Nobody expected the free agent tsunami of recent months. But it arrived. And the Nats, without an adequate backup plan, are reduced to moaning about all the evil teams that, somehow, looked at the prosperous baseball industry and thought higher salaries were justified.

Now, unless some purse strings get loosened in a hurry, the Nationals may be just one injury to their "ace" away from embarrassing not just themselves, but their sport.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company