It's hot stove time, and it's not too early to worry about the Nationals

If free agent first baseman Carlos Pena reverts to his 2007-09 form with the Tampa Bay Rays, he could be a prime signing for the Nationals. But at age 32, he also could be in a statistical decline. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
If free agent first baseman Carlos Pena reverts to his 2007-09 form with the Tampa Bay Rays, he could be a prime signing for the Nationals. But at age 32, he also could be in a statistical decline. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 12:09 AM

It is several weeks too soon to judge the Nationals' offseason. Carlos Pena, Carl Pavano, Carl Crawford and other holiday packages are still out there on the shopping shelves at prices the Nats could afford. A year ago, the Nats hadn't even signed Pudge Rodriguez. Matt Capps and Jason Marquis didn't arrive until January.

But it's not too soon to worry. And grind your teeth, too.

This is the week, as big-name free agents such as Adam Dunn declined salary arbitration on Tuesday, when the big bucks hunt usually begins. The winter meetings next week can be a trade fest.

But, for the Nats, several of their best opportunities may already have passed. Not only did they miss signing Dunn in July, when he might have grabbed the same three-year, $35 million deal that he spurned when it was finally offered in the season's final week, now it looks like the Nats misread November's fireworks, too.

As recession panic recedes, the baseball market is abandoning the bargain prices of the last two winters; and the Nats, apparently still hoping for wholesale, are being left behind.

Since the end of the season, $30 million in old contracts have dropped off the Nats' bottom-tier payroll. They could afford to add $40 million a year in free agents if they chose to do it. Shouldn't they follow the advice of former team president Stan Kasten, who said, "Now, it's time to add key pieces."

For two months, Kasten said the Nats should spend this offseason to be "competitive (near .500) in '11." Why? Because by the time Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were, hopefully, playing together in the '12-to-'16 window, "the jump to contender can happen fast."

General Manager Mike Rizzo chimed in, too, saying several times, that the Nats would add two "top of the rotation" starting pitchers for '11.

How's that working out?

So far, in the hot stove league, starting pitchers like Ted Lilly ($33 million for three years), Jorge De La Rosa ($32 million for three years) and Javier Vazquez - who were logical Nats targets - have all disappeared in the last week. Poof!

Since getting Cliff Lee is just a fantasy, the Nats are left with tough choices. A 34-year-old free agent coming off his best year like Pavano (17-11) is dicey. A trade for a Zack Greinke or Matt Garza would costs a fortune in prospects, if you could swing the deal at all. Do you end up admitting defeat and sign a back-from-surgery gamble like Brandon Webb? Remember Chien-Ming Wang?

If the Lerner family thought the price of playing poker was high before, how will they cope with a world where the mid-market Rockies just gave Troy Tulowitzki, who is roughly equivalent to Ryan Zimmerman, a contract extension through 2020 that will pay him $157.7 million?

Colorado may have gone out too far in the future but only by a couple of years. The cost of keeping Zimmerman beyond his current contract, which ends after '13, just changed.

Since the Lerners bought the team five years ago, no Nats executive has had the financial authority to lick a stamp without clearing it with the Nats' board of directors, which is completely Lerner-controlled with no baseball people at all. Speed and flexibility aren't Nat trademarks.

The amateur-hour component of the Nats' decision-making was never more evident than in the Nats' internal view all summer that Dunn would be more likely to sign a contract extension as the season came to an end because he really liked playing in D.C. This naivete stood 30 years of free agent history on its head and left industry insiders howling - with dismay or laughter.

If the Nats sign Pena to replace Dunn and he bounces back to his '07-to-'09 levels - 39 homers, 108 RBI and a .252 average - they'll look like geniuses. Especially Rizzo, who has championed the idea. If he duplicates '10, with 28 homers, 84 RBI, 158 strikeouts and a .196 average, there will probably be boos, even though Pena is just as much a great-guy type as Dunn.

The big Pena worry is that he mimics the players whose career stats most resemble his at age 32: Tony Clark, Dick Stuart, Glenn Davis and Gorman Thomas. After they had their first post-age-30 stat decline, they weren't worth 10 cents, much less $10 million.

The Nats had better hope that those two compensation draft picks they get in '11 in return for losing a Type A free agent (Dunn) work out well. If the Nats are lucky, those kids may actually turn into big-league players by '15. The Lerners have owned the team for five seasons and 478 defeats. What's another five years? You'll wait, right?

The Nats' best hope for a reasonably constructive winter is Rizzo's history of thinking outside the box and running silent until he's ready to act. Will the Nats ownership let Rizzo make a blow-away offer to a blue-chip free agent like Crawford or even the older Jayson Werth? Will they see the necessity of adding a pitcher, an outfielder and first baseman so they can lay the groundwork for '12 and beyond?

The Nats should look at their excellent '10 rookie class - including Ian Desmond, Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa and Roger Bernadina - then meditate on their incredible luck in getting Strasburg and Harper in consecutive drafts. They should look at the superior performances in the elite Arizona Fall League of catcher Derek Norris, left-hander Sammy Solis, reliever Cole Kimball and Harper. There's young talent coming. But you don't win with only two $5 million players on your roster.

The Nationals are at an inflection point. Do they stay low budget, profitable and largely indifferent to the product they put on the field? If they care primarily about the bottom line, then they'll wait and hope that Strasburg and Harper put fans in the seats in '12 or '13. Then, cash in hand, maybe they'll spend.

However, if the Nats, as they always claim, really want to build a contending team and maximize their top 10 market, then they should start to invest now in quality players. Don't blow off '11.

Rizzo knows it as Kasten did before him. But the owners are still novices. Just as they didn't know something as basic as Sign Dunn In Midseason, not the Last Week of the Season, they really don't grasp that you build a team that's worth watching first and then the fans come in droves. In baseball, the product comes first.

For the Nats, grasping that axiom really would be a first.

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