By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 12:03 AM
After the Washington Nationals sign Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth and Carlos Pena this winter for $40 million a year in new contracts, while watching $23 million a year drop off their 2010 books with the exodus of Adam Dunn, Cristian Guzman and Matt Capps, the team should be in the playoffs next year. Then, in 2012, with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper on hand, they'll win the World Series.
"Maybe. But we could also win the World Series next year," departing team President Stan Kasten said. "Once you're in the playoffs, you never know."
Maybe the last home game of a 90-loss year makes everybody punchy. But someday, if the Nats are ever going to maximize the potential of their top-10 market and if they intend to capitalize on the window through 2016 during which Strasburg is under team control and Harper is reaching his potential, then they have to think big.
The idea of bold moves and great success can't always evoke a sardonic that-isn't-going-to-happen-here laugh.
For the Nats, there's no time like now. Conditions for bravery are never perfect. But sometimes they are good enough to take the leap. This winter's free agent market is adequate at the Nats' positions of greatest need. If not Cliff Lee, then Ted Lilly or even Carl Pavano. If not Werth, then Carl Crawford. If not Pena, then Paul Konerko or crawl back to Dunn and beg him to resign.
Go ahead, say it: "Oh, those stars won't sign with the Nats."
There has to be a first time.
When do those who run baseball in Washington decide to dare to be great? Or at least take the risk to be much better than 68-90?
Will the Nats sit on their hands and wait, collecting revenue-sharing and TV rights cash from the Orioles, keeping a low payroll and being one of the sport's most profitable teams? If you can draw 22,600 per game in Washington, at quality-product prices, just by opening the gates and saying, "Game tonight," why try harder?
Kasten, who quit last week, has said repeatedly this summer the time to begin acting decisively is right now. When you have a rookie class of Strasburg, Drew Storen, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Roger Bernadina and Wilson Ramos, and then Jordan Zimmermann, back from elbow surgery, hits his old 96-mph high-water mark in his most recent start, what are you waiting for?
In previous late-September evaluations here, it has been noted that the Nats constantly think small. They've never reached the major league staffing levels, in any part of the organization, that you would expect of a team with healthy revenues and black ink.
Oh, there are poor franchises that make do with less. But you likely won't find other teams that rank close to the top in the Forbes magazine profitability analysis that are so lean in their front office and scouting, right on down to the soda and hot dog lines. This is a team that, when former GM Jim Bowden resigned, didn't hire anybody in the front office for many months. Hey, everybody, just pull a little harder on that rope.
The Nats have made progress. But it's only a start. Their front office had gone from emaciated to, perhaps, adequate, but who is going to pick up the energy and expertise gap with Kasten gone?
The team's bright hope is that Mike Rizzo looks like he has the right stuff as general manager. If you want to define "smart value proposition," it's signing free agent Matt Capps for $3.5 million, then trading him in July for prospect Wilson Ramos, who'll probably be your catcher for years.
But such coups aren't enough. As Kasten always said, there's a third leg of the team-building stool besides player development and trades. When the time is right, you have to "add pieces." And that means buy 'em. Will Rizzo have that latitude and budget?
As he departs, Kasten is making the case to spend when the time is right. And that time is now when "your franchise is ready to make the jump from under-construction to being competitive."
Achieving that "competitive" level isn't a snap or a one-year certainty. There can be delays. But you stay at it and improve each off-season because, Kasten says, "Once you get to 'competitive' the jump to 'contending' is small, and it can happen fast."
This season was the first significant step forward for the Nats since they came to town. Nothing shows progress more clearly than simple "run differential." The team that baseball shipped to D.C. was only outscored by 34 runs. From '06 through '09, the deficit increased to minus 126, 110, 184 and 164 runs.
After Rizzo's first offseason of rebuilding, that gap dropped to 76 runs this season. In just one year, the dead-worst Nats jumped ahead of eight teams in run differential. This is the winter to leapfrog over eight more clubs.
Rizzo probably knows how. He's got the confidence to pull the trigger if given encouragement. In one year, he rebuilt a horrid bullpen so well that he could subtract the all-star Capps and still end the year with six relievers who worked more than 300 innings to a combined ERA of 2.74 - exactly the same ERA that Capps had.
Now, Rizzo wants top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers - plural. While Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis may be adequate in '11, they likely won't be around in 2012-13, when Strasburg, Zimmermann and John Lannan need help to run at the postseason.
Two years ago, I could count on one hand the Nats who, even if you projected an optimistic career arc, might be among the 15 core players on a team aimed at 90 wins.
Now, the list includes Zimmerman, Harper, Espinosa, Storen, Desmond, Bernadina, Ramos, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard, Zimmermann, Lannan, Josh Willingham, Dunn (or replacement free agent), Strasburg and perhaps Ross Detwiler, Michael Morse, Nyjer Morgan or Collin Balester, too. A bunch will bomb out. But look at the number of them.
The departing Kasten, never known as a big spender in his Atlanta days, now says, "It's time to start adding key pieces."
Once again this winter, Rizzo can be expected to run silent and think big. But will he have anyone, with a multi-billionaire's checkbook and those same big dreams, running beside him?