By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Players love to take the New York Yankees' money almost as much as the Yankees love to spend it, and that, in the end, resulted in the Washington Nationals' lone problem.
For the first time in franchise history, the Nationals had taken full pursuit of an A-list free agent -- the kind of player the Yankees usually get. The Boston Red Sox were in the race for Mark Teixeira, then out, then back in. The Los Angeles Angels were in, then called it off. But the Nationals were all-in all along.
And still, the Yankees won a race that few even saw them running.
Teixeira agreed yesterday to a preliminary deal with New York for a total of eight years worth a reported $180 million -- an unpredicted (but vintage Yankees) development that gave the Nationals a painful confirmation of baseball's pecking order. By losing out on Teixeira, the primary target of their offseason, the Nationals must now plot less emphatic -- and decidedly lower-profile -- ways to upgrade their last-place team.
One team source said yesterday that the money saved on Teixeira should not be interpreted as a coffer for further offseason spending. Perhaps the Nationals will explore free agent slugger Adam Dunn as an alternative, but even that is still a subject of internal debate. The Nationals have long preached about their plan for building an eventual championship team -- a plan that includes acquiring young players or players just entering their primes, most often via trades or through the draft. At the winter meetings, the team said it was not interested in outfielder Manny Ramírez, another Scott Boras client.
Signing Teixeira would have been a seminal moment for the franchise, which since relocating to the District four years ago has maintained a payroll between $37 million and $63 million. But early this offseason, Washington General Manager Jim Bowden approached team owners Mark and Ted Lerner with the message that Teixeira fit the exact profile of what their team needed. Teixeira was young (28), played first base and grew up in nearby Severna Park. Plus, he had collected at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI in five consecutive seasons.
Washington, for the first time in franchise history, showed its willingness to spend enough to acquire such a piece.
"Basically, we're disappointed; we wanted to sign Mark," Bowden said. "But I think throughout the process we all learned that the Lerner family will step up at the highest level with the best teams in baseball, which they demonstrated throughout the negotiations. At the end our offer was competitive with the best teams in baseball."
According to sources, the Nationals' final offer -- between $178 million and $184 million, depending on the report -- was not the deciding factor for Teixeira. He simply preferred a team that could win immediately. Washington officials spoke to Teixeira and Boras about the potential in baseball for a quick turnaround; the Colorado Rockies and Tampa Bay Rays had done it in successive seasons, after all. Bowden offered the pitch that the Nationals, with two top-10 picks in the 2009 draft, could develop into a contender within two or three years. The team's final contract included an out clause for Teixeira after the fourth year.
Instead, a frenzied two weeks of negotiations -- orchestrated by Boras -- led Teixeira to the Bronx and continued New York's offseason of stunning spending. Before this signing, the Yankees had already devoted $243.5 million to two free agent pitchers, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. With Teixeira at $180 million, the Yankees now have on their roster the four highest-paid players in baseball history -- a list that also includes Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Sabathia.
Teixeira's deal with the Yankees, according to numerous reports, includes a $5 million bonus and a full no-trade clause. The Teixeira signing signified the latest attempt by New York to rebound from its third-place finish -- American League East rivals Tampa Bay and Boston finished ahead of the Yankees -- as it christens a new Yankee Stadium.
Since the winter meetings earlier this month, the Red Sox and Nationals had made the most public campaigns for Teixeira. But the Yankees stayed back, waiting to enter negotiations until other teams' attempts fizzled. Boston's front office traveled last Thursday to Dallas for a face-to-face meeting with Boras, but the sides parted without a deal. Sunday night, the Angels announced that they were withdrawing their offer and focusing their attention elsewhere.
Left with no other choice, the Nationals are now following suit.
Said Bowden, "We'll turn our attention to improve the team in other ways."
Nationals Notes: The Nationals signed infielder José Castillo, outfielder Corey Patterson, catcher Gustavo Molina, right-handed relief pitcher Jorge Sosa and left-handed starter Gustavo Chacín to minor league contracts yesterday. Patterson and Castillo are perhaps the most notable in that bunch, as both were regulars earlier in their careers.
Patterson, 29, is a nine-year veteran and a lifetime .253 hitter who is coming off a difficult 2008 season, where he hit .205 with 10 home runs and 34 RBI for the Cincinnati Reds.