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Cause For Concern

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ted Lerner sat in Nationals Park last night, as fascinated with his team and as optimistic about it, despite its 57-93 record, as he has ever been. "Our objective has been the same since the first day," he said. "We are creating a fine organization from top to bottom and we think we're going in the right direction."

All around the Lerner family, however, are members of the organization who are starting to worry. Not mutiny. Not doubting his family's pledges two years ago to do what was necessary to build a champion. But fretting. A lot. With good reason. The future of the franchise, which seemed so bright on Opening Night in a new ballpark, has turned progressively darker as this injury-demolished year has dragged toward its end.

That is the nature of such a season. Patience is tested. Cracks show. Can you stick with a plan that you believe is sound? But flexibility is also tested. Can a billionaire, steeped in conservative business practices, adapt that plan -- accelerate it or emphasize parts that become more urgent -- as circumstances demand?

Will he and his family spend the money that's necessary to give The Plan a fair chance? Will Washington, which built his team a lovely park, be given a good-faith chance for a return on its social investment?

We'll find out, because the Nats are being severely stress-tested. In the March 30 opener on South Capitol Street, Ryan Zimmerman, the face of the franchise, hit a game-winning home run that symbolized the hopes of a franchise whose revenue would rise enormously this year in a $611 million, District-built playpen. What could go wrong?

What hasn't?

Now, the tone of the team, from executives to the clubhouse, has begun to alter as the club wrings its hands that ownership has not made a single investment in a prime free agent over the last two winters or made an important trade that increased payroll. Is the support there?

"We are making money," said one player, "but it doesn't look like we are spending money."

The Nats entered this season with the game's 26th-ranked payroll. After subtracting Paul Lo Duca, Felipe López, Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala and, if he doesn't recover from arm miseries, Chad Cordero, that budget for '09 may fall by nearly $20 million from its current $55 million.

Will the same roster be back next season, with minor alterations, trusting merely to better health to produce a vastly better record? Is that how you revive a fan base that has become so somnolent that only 21,759 -- the second-smallest crowd of the season -- attended Monday's matchup of future Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez and the Nats' best young pitcher, John Lannan?

The mood that surrounds the Nats could change in a day. If a Mark Teixeira, Adam Dunn, Ben Sheets or CC Sabathia signs as a free agent, views will change fast. "This offseason, we're going to give consideration to going to other places we haven't been," Lerner said last night, certainly hinting, as the Nats tend to do, but again not promising. "But it has to make sense."

The Nats are still furious that they didn't sign their first-round draft choice -- No. 9 overall pick Aaron Crow. "That one is not our fault. What he wanted was way out of line," said one Nat who otherwise has doubts about the team's willingness to spend. Next year, when the Nats may have the top pick overall, as well as pick No. 9a to replace Crow, Lerner vows, "We will do everything humanly possible to get our top pick signed."

According to sources, the Nats are already willing to make trades of the kind that add perhaps $6 million to $8 million a year to payroll. But some potentially bigger signings, like a groundswell to beat the Dodgers in the bidding for Andruw Jones last winter, have met resistance at the top.

"I have never turned down anything that [Nationals president Stan Kasten] has directly recommended to me," Lerner said.

That's fine. But it's not exactly the same tone of voice from the boss as, "Let's go get a couple of good players and build this team a little faster, guys."

It's difficult to tell a genial but imposing business titan that you'd like him to reach deeper in his pocket, especially if you work for him. And, according to Lerner, not one person, either fan or employee, has said anything to him this season except, "Good job."

So, for variety, I said: "Fine businessmen tend to make bad owners. To win, you must try to lose -- money."

Lerner laughed. It's easy to see why he's liked, but also seldom contradicted -- at least to his face. So, let me help.

"A 'plan' has more than a first sentence," one member of the Nats' front office said. "We're developing our farm system and making trades. But there is the third way you get players, too." Let's see, that would be free agents.

"We're doing a lot of things right. But when you're rebuilding a team, you need to add at least one player from the outside every year, sometimes with a trade that adds to your payroll," said a key member of the team's staff.

Many will mutter but, so far, only one -- Zimmerman -- says, "Okay, quote me." That's because he's the one National who most wants to stay in Washington and be part of a winner here. So, logically, he is also the man most worried that it doesn't seem to be happening yet.

"I love it here. It would be so much fun to win in Washington. And it's close to home" in Virginia Beach, Zimmerman said. "But every player in this game is the same. Most of all, you want to win. If it looks like we're going to lose 90 games every year . . . I'm not going to play here my whole career if we're not going to win."

Zimmerman's not leaving anytime soon. He won't be a free agent for three years, though he's eligible for arbitration this offseason. And he makes it clear he's not unhappy that he hasn't signed a long-term contract. Before this season, the Nats offered him what he considers "a fair deal," similar to that of Rockies star Troy Tulowitzki. But he wants to prove he's worth even more, like Hanley Ramírez of the Marlins.

Lerner knows his mind and, while he welcomes input, doesn't change it often on basic precepts. "We're not taking any profits for 10 years and we'll make appropriate player moves at the right time," he said. "That's not including the money [more than $40 million] that we put into upgrading the park. That was a [one-time] cash contribution for extras."

As for attendance, now averaging 29,379 and ranked 19th in baseball -- disappointing to many observers for a new park in a sizable market -- Lerner says, "We met all our objectives on realistic numbers. We expected to draw 2.2 to 2.4 million and we'll end up at 2.3 million. We've reduced prices on 7,500 seats for next season."

"It takes time to build a club," says Lerner, tapping his finger on the railing in front of him, "but the money we are taking in is not going anywhere but into this team."

That's what everyone hopes. And expects.

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