Nats Need to Buy Some Pop

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, December 6, 2008

Mark Teixeira is not the best player in baseball and might not go to Cooperstown. In six years, he has never led a league in a Triple Crown category. Agent Scott Boras, famous for demanding the stars with an option on a few planets, wants a 10-year, $200 million deal for the free agent. The Angels need to keep him. The Yankees and Red Sox are hovering.

So why on earth are the Nats and Orioles wasting time joining the battle for the Severna Park native? Are they serious? Is it just PR? Do they have a chance?

And, in a recession, is Teixeira even worth the kind of contract he might get: perhaps eight years for $150 million with a vesting option for a ninth year and a no-trade clause?

Throughout the sport, as baseball's winter meetings begin Monday in Las Vegas and the hot stove league starts smoking, baseball has no more hotly debated question than this: What is Teixeira worth? He's the prize. He sets the market.

In other years, in better financial times, the Angels might be begging Teixeira to stay for a decade. Instead, they've offered him arbitration so they'll get compensatory draft picks if he leaves. Oh, he's their top priority. But the reports from L.A. say the Angels adore Teixeira for just six years or, okay, maybe seven. Ten is off the table.

"It's not going to be more than eight," one industry source said.

That's why the door is open, if only a tempting crack, for teams such as the Nats and O's. Extra years give them an extra chance at a big-gamble bonanza -- or a huge crap out.

The answer to the Teixeira value proposition is clear. But it's far from obvious. You have to dig through history to figure out whether a 28-year-old first baseman (who had knee surgery in '07) is worth an eight-or-more-season risk.

So let's compare Teixeira's career at the same age to every player in history. Then figure out what similar stars did over their next eight to 10 seasons.

The conclusion: Teixeira is worth every penny of $150 million for eight years, and maybe more. If the Nats are ever going to pull out the stops, regardless of rivals, now's the time to be high bidder. Nothing less has a chance.

After six years in the majors, Teixeira is, statistically, a clone of four other sluggers, all first basemen: Carlos Delgado, Fred McGriff, Jim Thome and Jeff Bagwell. Their past predicts his future. All continued to be stars for eight years, at least, after the age of 28.

From age 29 through 36, Delgado averaged 35 homers and 111 RBI, Bagwell 38 and 115, McGriff 28 and 98, and Thome, despite a year when he played 59 games, 39 and 102. As a group, the four averaged 35 homers and 106 RBI.

Conveniently, they're all fresh in memory. Last year, Delgado, at 36, had 38 homers and 115 RBI; Thome, 37, had 34 and 90. McGriff, now retired, averaged 29 homers and 104 RBI in what would be the eighth through 10th years of a Teixeira deal. Fade with age? No way.

So is it reasonable to think that Teixeira can continue the pace of his past five seasons -- 35 homers, 118 RBI and a .295 average -- for a lot more years? Many in baseball, including apparently the Angels, think the answer is "No."

The Nats, an afterthought in the sport, need to believe the answer is "Yes." Make a huge bet on it. Then hope Teixeira buys The Plan and comes home to (bat) cleanup.

Now, for the bad news: There's still no free lunch.

If you want to worry, Teixeira's career also resembles those of Willie McCovey and Will Clark, who remained fine hitters but fought injuries, and rotund Kent Hrbek, who aged fast.

From ages 29 through 36, McCovey averaged 29 homers and 86 RBI a year in 411 at-bats; Clark, in 424 at-bats per season, hit .305 at those ages. Not bad. And remember, when they didn't play, somebody else produced homers and RBI.

Hrbek? Uh, just 20 homers and 74 RBI for six years, then squat. That's the nightmare scenario. There's no denying it.

It's tough to pull the trigger in frightening times, to be greedy, as they say, when others are fearful. Yet that's why the Nats, whose chances you would usually mock, have a shot. Others will say, "He's not Albert Pujols." That's right. He's Delgado. Or "the Rangers didn't win with him." Also true.

If the Nats can't wrest Teixeira from a glamour team with immediate World Series hopes, they might have a fine consolation prize. The market for Diamondbacks left fielder Adam Dunn has shriveled along with the economy. Once thought to be a $15-million-a-year player, despite his weak defense and plentiful strikeouts, Dunn (29) may eventually be available for a few years at $10-million-per or even less.

Why should the Nats want him? Because he's the second coming of the Capital Punisher, Frank Howard -- only Dunn's better. Bad teams need drawing cards and credibility as they improve. That'd be Dunn.

In his career, the 6-foot-7, 270-pound Howard hit 40 homers three times. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Dunn has already had five 40-homer years -- in a row.

Whose careers most resemble Dunn's stat profile? In order, Darryl Strawberry, Jose Canseco, Harmon Killebrew, Rocky Colavito and Reggie Jackson. Oh, that's a boring group. Nobody ever bought a ticket to see them.

Also, Dunn hits left-handed and could play first base if Nick Johnson isn't healthy. If Johnson stayed in one piece, the Nats might be the most improved offense in baseball.

Is the Nats' ownership, which didn't re-sign Alfonso Soriano in '06 and couldn't get a deal done with No. 1 draft pick Aaron Crow last summer, ready to land a Teixeira or Dunn?

Within baseball, the Nats are now seen as ready to compete. "Looks like they're for real this time," said one executive who's dismissed them in the past. But are they Teixeira real? Or Dunn real? Or only real for the kind of "value players" who are still homeless in February?

What about trades, especially those that add payroll, like the fine deal that fetched Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham for rookie Emilio Bonifacio and two minor leaguers last month? General Manager Jim Bowden is described by another exec as "a man playing 20-dimensional chess" as he manically tries to wrap up Christmas packages. But has he been given "real" money with which to play?

The Nats' serious season starts next week, not next April. Ready or not? We'll know before Inauguration Day.

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