Not too soon to worry about the Nationals' offseason

First baseman Carlos Pena had fine years with Tampa Bay from 2007 to '09, but at age 32, he could be a risky signing for the Nationals.
First baseman Carlos Pena had fine years with Tampa Bay from 2007 to '09, but at age 32, he could be a risky signing for the Nationals. (Ronald Martinez)
By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, December 2, 2010

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 arrived 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?

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