Adam LaRoche signing shows Washington Nationals now know nothing is free

Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 12:23 AM

Nothing is free. Billionaires aren't exempt. As the Washington Nationals' owners are now learning, in baseball there is even a steep price to be paid for the money you didn't spend in the past.

These days, Ted Lerner can't give away his millions even when he tries. It's a sight to behold. Bill Veeck once tried to attract fans by letting a few of them run around his infield picking up loose $1 bills. Now Lerner is trying the same promotion to attract free agents to South Capitol Street, except he's upped the denomination to $1 million units.

You don't know whether to laugh or cry. The Nats stood on their heads for days trying to convince '09 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to accept a trade to Washington and get a fat contract extension beyond '12. Before the Nats and Kansas City could shape a final deal, Greinke invoked his no-trade clause rather than come to D.C. So, two weeks ago, K.C. traded him to Milwaukee. You know, the town in Wisconsin that hasn't been to the World Series since '82.

The Nats and their money also have been turned down regularly by less notable objects of their affection. The Nats probably outbid the Rockies for lefty Jorge de la Rosa, with more than $30 million on the table, but he stayed in Colorado. The Nats analyzed Carlos Pena all summer, but, after hitting .196, he signed with the Cubs because their hitting coach is his old guru. Derrek Lee picked the Orioles even though Nats GM Mike Rizzo said: "We liked Lee a lot. I don't know why he went to Baltimore over us." But he did.

On Tuesday, the Orioles signed another player in whom the Nats had shown some interest, reliever Kevin Gregg, for $10 million over two years.

Then, within hours, as the list of offseason targets shrank, the Nats signed the one free agent everybody knew they absolutely positively had to have: Adam LaRoche.

The Nats paid full price - at least. For a first baseman who has averaged 26 homers and 89 RBI the past five years - almost exactly the MLB average for the position - they gave a two-year deal for $15 million, plus a $1 million buyout on a third year at $10 million.

Is LaRoche tickled? Last year, he was in a similar free agent position coming off 25 homers, 83 RBI and an .843 OPS. He got $4.5 million for one year. Now, after 25 homers, 100 RBI and a .788 OPS, he gets $16 million for two years. Welcome to the Nats ATM.

Everybody knows the Nats have money to spend and, finally, want to spend it. When a player seeks leverage, his people hint that the Nats are the mystery team chasing him. As a result, the Nats "didn't get" Cliff Lee, even though they were just doing due diligence in inquiring about him. Soon, the Nats "won't get" Carl Pavano either. "I hear we are 'the finalist' along with the Twins," said Rizzo, acerbically. "We've never spoken to Pavano and we haven't talked to his agent since the winter meetings."

If the Nats can work out a prospects-for-15-game-winner trade with Tampa Bay for Matt Garza, and they definitely have explored that, will the big right-hander climb the Tropicana Field scaffolding and threaten to jump rather than come to Washington?

What does it take to get somebody to play for the Nats? Paying well above market price will do the trick, it appears.

"It shows the difficulty of trying to build something," Rizzo said. "The only thing that convinces players to come is winning. It's the chicken and the egg. Which comes first? Do you win and then the players come, or do the players come and then you win?"

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