Those 'Poor' Nats

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Right now, the Nationals are sometimes compared to the '62 Mets, the worst team in history. In one year, they'll be compared to another New York team, the filthy-rich Yankees. Now, the Nats are pitied. Soon, they will be feared. That's not a prediction as much as it is a virtual baseball certainty. The reason is simple: money, tons and tons of money.

By spending almost nothing on payroll now, the Nationals have ensured themselves an enormous checkbook for years to come. Over the next three to five seasons, a unique window for constructing their franchise, the Nats will have resources that surpass any team in Los Angeles, Boston or Chicago and may equal the Yankees in their ability to land free agents. That chance won't last forever. Ultimately, Washington may be a top 15 or top 10 market for revenue, not top five. But the impact of going from a tiny payroll to a large one, all in the near future, should be enormous. Yet few, even here, seem to notice.

The most striking fact about the Nats may also be the most overlooked. A team that will be rich as soon as its new ballpark opens next year has slashed its payroll to abject poverty levels this season -- cutting from $63.3 million in '06 to $36 million in '07, the game's third lowest. This is the sub-basement. Only four teams are under $47 million. Of their 25 highest salaries in '06, the Nats dumped 19 while adding virtually nobody. Alfonso Soriano, Livan Hernandez, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas, six of the top nine, earned $34.6 million in '06. Now, all are gone. If you're not in the Nats' future, you're in their past.

Most important, the Nats' payroll is now a whopping $50 million to $60 million less than comparable National League East franchises in Philadelphia and Atlanta -- which shelled out $88.3 million and $92.5 million last season. Seven teams top $100 million.

As a result, over the next few offseasons the Nats should be able to sign several of the best players in baseball. And they better. Even last winter's orgy of free agent spending plays into the Nats' hands since it should deplete the future buying power of several keys rivals, such as the Cubs. Nats fans should demand nothing less than swift and radical improvement each season.

"That's absolutely true," team president Stan Kasten said on Tuesday when asked about purging payroll to create financial flexibility and firepower the next few seasons. "It wasn't an accident. We're pleased with our path and pace. We're prepared to be very, very aggressive [in free agency] once 'job one' is done, which is the building of our [player development] foundation."

No other team has a comparable opportunity for near-term transformation and few clubs have ever been in such a position. The Lerner family inherited a low-budget team from Montreal, yet has a core of a half-dozen young quality players who still make modest salaries. The team had two No. 1 draft picks in '06 and has five picks in the top 75 in '07. The Nats should have a high first-round pick again in '08. Those kids won't qualify for huge free agent salaries for nearly a decade. Finally, the Nats' windfall, a publicly financed $611 million park, arrives in '08 in a wealthy market. Karma's nice. Cash works well, too.

The closest parallel to the Nats' current situation is not Kasten's old Braves teams but the American League champion Tigers. They were awful as recently as '03 when they finished 43-119, but had a new park to amp revenue if they could field a compelling team. So, they systematically grabbed free agents while fostering the farm system. Detroit bought Magglio OrdoƱez, Ivan Rodriguez and Kenny Rogers, all all-stars last summer, and closer Todd Jones. It took three winters to amass them. What do such prime commodities cost, you ask? Last season, they earned $40.6 million. So that's the Nats' template, except Washington can probably afford more.

In politics, it's said, "they'll love us when we win." That's the Nats' belief. Warts will be forgotten. But win the Nats must. You get only one chance to build a fan base in new territory. This is it. The Nats must double their payroll fairly quickly and (including inflation) perhaps triple it by '10. When you're handed the keys to a free ballpark, such spending borders on a civic obligation. To whom much is given, much is expected. So, the Nats' world of low expectations is about to change radically.

If Washington doesn't field a competitive team in '08, a winning team by '09 and a contender by '10, the Lerner family should consider shaking up its executives. Granted, Kasten and GM Jim Bowden will make mistakes. (We all make mistakes. After consulting Rule 4, Section 66, Article 4 (a), I no longer think Jeff Green traveled against Vanderbilt, although I'm pretty sure he balked and grounded his club in a hazard.) Still, the Nats' brass should be held to a high standard. And soon.

So far, the Nats' brain trust may be doing quite well. With less than a week before Opening Day, the Nats don't look as lousy in Florida as they might prefer. "That No. 1 overall draft pick may be gone already," laughed a Nats exec. "How about No. 3?"

Shawn Hill has a 0.96 ERA in five starts. Rookie lefty Matt Chico is ahead of schedule for a rotation spot. Jerome Williams (3.38 ERA) always had a fine arm. John Patterson hasn't fallen into a manhole yet. The bullpen's deep. Cristian Guzman, still only 29, is 16 for 36. Was the shoulder injury that cost him the '06 season part of the reason he hit .219 in '05? If so, did the Nats just rediscover the shortstop from three Twins playoff teams? It's only exhibitions, but versatile Kory Casto, shortstop Josh Wilson, outfielder Chris Snelling and catcher Jesus Flores (Rule 5) all look like big league hitters. And solid utilityman Ronnie Belliard fell into the Nats' hands. That's a lot of positives for one spring training. "Hysteria was premature," Kasten said.

Las Vegas has noticed. Scouts were recently quoted as saying the Nats were so bad they could lose 130. Talk's cheap. The smart money disagrees. The over-under for the Nats is 68-94 -- just three more loses than last year. Can that be right? The Nats lose Soriano, four-fifths of their rotation and Nick Johnson for half the year. They add no name player. They conserve so much cash the Lerners say they'll contribute $30 million for additional amenities in the new park. Yet they won't even lose 100 games?

If the Nats have a record close to 68-94 for their Devil Rays-sized payroll, Kasten and Bowden will deserve lots of kudos. They will have survived their last year in old RFK at minimal cost while creating a vast payroll vacuum to seed their future. In addition, they'll provide a stage for any player in the organization to prove he deserves a spot in D.C. when the ship comes in.

Even if this season is a mild surprise, don't be satisfied. Hold their feet to the fire. For the next several years, the Nats should improve at one of the most dramatic rates of any franchise in many years. A blank canvas and a blank check should be enough.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company