Slow-Moving Construction

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, January 24, 2009

I'm not quite mad as hell. And I can probably take it a little longer.

However, my fuse is getting short when I think about the Lerners' poor stewardship of the Nationals. In a week or two, if the Nats have refused to spend appropriately on free agents to improve an abomination of a ballclub, while accepting the largesse of a city that paid $693 million to build them a ballpark, then I may go Howard Beale nutty on somebody. I've already canceled the Nationals season tickets that I waited 37 years to buy.

The Lerners, who haven't made a serious offer to any major free agent since they failed to get Mark Teixeira last month, need to show that they deserve to be entrusted with the Nationals.

Does the family, led by billionaire developer Ted Lerner, understand the game as much as it loves it?

Do the Lerners appreciate the precarious state of their relations not only with fans, but with their own executives?

Do they have any idea, after a lifetime of erecting buildings, of how to build a team? Team president Stan Kasten does. But do they? By all indications, his advice is heard but not heeded.

And, most important, are they totally tone deaf to the indignation of a town that, after 33 empty years, is now given an inept team and an owner who won't spend, even in a dream market for free agents, despite the fact that, by 2010, he may field the lowest payroll team in all of baseball?

The Lerners have not spent appreciably to improve their major league roster in nearly three years as owners. They couldn't sign their first-round draft pick, ninth overall, last summer. International activity is nearly nil.

Meanwhile, their farm system, which moved up to No. 9 in baseball a year ago, has now flopped back into the bottom third, according to Baseball America, the industry standard. First-round picks Ross Detwiler, Chris Marrero and Colton Willems have regressed. A good plan has to operate at all levels at all times, including the big leagues.

In baseball's fifth year back in Washington, it is time for a city that has waited so long and paid so much to be offered a product at Nationals Park that is worth the $29-a-ticket average cost, plus pricey food and parking.

During a time of recession, baseball remains the best value in professional sports. Except in Washington.

Ted Lerner is a fine man in my book. Self-made but unassuming, philanthropic but tough, devoted to the Nats in theory but in practice perhaps out of touch with the whirlwind of frustration and perplexity that swirls throughout his organization.

Lerner did an impressive job of courting Teixeira. High marks. But that was last month. Nobody thought the Nats had much chance anyway. The test was always what the Nats would do after Tex said, "No."

So far, the Nats have disappeared from the offseason stage just when they had shown the first signs of being a player. Ten days ago, it appeared that inactivity was a negotiating ploy. Now it's a worry.

Last Opening Day, Lerner asked me, "How long before we have to win?" I joked that, since the new park looked beautiful, he probably had until about the seventh inning.

Back then, the Nats, internally, thought they might be a .500 team. Injuries, and a 162-game reality check, proved that to be a major delusion. Only bad-to-the-bone teams lose 102 games. The Nats now embarrass the Expos, who only lost 102 once in their last 35 years in Canada. The old Washington Senators only lost 102 games once from 1910 until they split for Minnesota.

Whatever the causes or excuses, you just can't be this bad and then do nothing. It's shameful.

"I don't think the owner wants to do anything," said a veteran executive in another organization. "The Nationals act like they're the Marlins, stuck in an old stadium."

Is this a premature, unfair reading? We'll find out fast. Everybody in baseball assumes the quality free agents left on the market probably will be signed by the end of next week.

Baseball isn't, "I want Teixeira or I won't pay." It's making an honest run at Teixeira, as the Nats did, then settling for very fine, but imperfect players.

Such as? A slugger who's hit 40 homers in each of the past five seasons. And a steady 190-inning starting pitcher. And a solid reliever with a low ERA in 2008. And maybe even a Gold Glove second baseman who hit .305 before an injury.

In other words, if the Nats were properly run, they might sign slugger Adam Dunn, pitcher Randy Wolf (12-12), reliever Joe Beimel (2.02) and perhaps second baseman Orlando Hudson, too -- all within the next handful of days. Or Dunn, Jon Garland (14-8) and Juan Cruz (2.61).

Such combinations, which would transform the Nats into a presentable team, are not just theoretical. They are absolutely feasible.

That's how sane the pricing of free agents is right now. That's how tiny the Nats' payroll is, especially when $18.5 million falls off after 2009 when the contracts of Austin Kearns, Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young end.

Right now, the Nats could probably pay something above market price -- a necessity for teams that lose 102 games -- and land Dunn and Wolf for three years at $12 million and $10 million per year, respectively. Beimel and Cruz earned $2 million each last year. And Hudson has seen his market value shrink to the point where a low-guarantee, high-incentive contract may suffice.

Late last season, Lerner told me he was cool to Dunn, put off by his strikeouts and deficiencies in left field. And Lerner doesn't change his mind easily. Dunn, 29, who made $13 million in Cincinnati last year, is key. He's not Teixeira, but he's very much what the Nats need -- a lefty bat -- for almost $150 million less in total dollars at risk.

His on-base percentage was ninth in the National League last year and his OPS a stellar 15th in baseball. He's a durable machine, with the ability to produce 100 RBI, 100 runs and 100 walks. A 6-foot-6, 240-pound force can change a whole lineup, helping hitters in front of and behind him. He and Ryan Zimmerman already are good friends. And Dunn can switch to first base if Johnson, who's only played 38 games in two years, can be traded or gets hurt again.

What sensible alternative do the Nats have? The raw, galling fact is that if the Nats do not sign Dunn, plus a starter and reliever, the 2010 Washington team almost certainly will have the lowest payroll in baseball. How do you justify that? Economically, Washington is not even one of baseball's harder-hit regions.

The recession, which surely bites the Lerner family's construction business, is not an excuse for inaction. Rather, it's an opportunity. Economies revive. But the chance to hire quality players at fair prices -- even including a "Nats Stink" premium -- will pass.

If the Nats think they can wait until February and get steal deals, it's not going to happen -- not for them anyway. The three outfielders who signed bargain contracts recently, $8 million to $10 million for Pat Burrell, Milton Bradley and Raúl Ibáñez, all signed with first-place teams.

Read my lips: Pennant contenders get a discount and can wait to act. The worst teams always pay a premium and have to strike preemptively. It's a law of nature.

The Nats' experienced baseball people are writhing in frustration as the clock ticks. Are Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden standing on the same ledge? "If they do nothing again this offseason, then common sense tells you that, sooner or later, Stan is gone," said a veteran executive.

Once, Lerner told me proudly that Shirley Povich attended his wedding. I always admired the way Shirley held his fire, withheld judgment as long as reasonable and gave people a full, fair chance. But I suspect that, wedding guest or not, Povich would be reaching one of his long-considered conclusions about now, saying, "Okay, Washington has done enough and waited long enough. It's time for the owners of the city's ballclub to do their part."

Whether he would have felt that way or not, I certainly do.

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