By Thomas Boswell
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?"
The Nats' answer is getting pretty clear. The (nest) egg comes first. You overpay the players to come, then you win, then you don't have to overpay anymore. You hope.
It's said you never get a second chance to make a first impression. In baseball, that's not quite true. You can do it, but as the Nats are discovering, it can be mighty expensive.
When the Nats moved into a new park in '08, baseball people told them "this is your chance" to change your franchise identity. Raise the team's payroll by 50 percent as clubs in similar spots had done in the past and, in the case of the Twins, have done as recently as last season. Give the fans their money's worth. Show good faith. It didn't happen.
The Nats fielded a bad product and got a worse reputation as a small-market-mentality franchise. Even when the Nats honestly tried to spend, they lost out in the bidding - for Mark Teixeira and Aroldis Chapman. So, the label stuck.
In reality, those two 100-loss years were a bitter lesson for the Lerner family. They changed their view of how to run a baseball team. But they didn't change quite fast enough to transform their image in their industry.
"Maybe it took them three years longer than it should have. But they're doing the right things now," said a former front office member. "Give them credit for that."
But now the wheel of karma has gotten in the way. As players consider Washington, old perceptions and nagging questions contaminate the team's new reality. Why didn't the Nats re-sign Adam Dunn? Why did Stan Kasten leave? Are you sure Stephen Strasburg's elbow will come back okay? Explain it again, please.
Irony of irony, even after signing LaRoche, the Nats would still have to add an expensive pitcher in trade (such as Garza), to avoid cutting their payroll in '11!
The Nats subtracted the salaries of Dunn ($12 million), Cristian Guzman ($8 million), Matt Capps ($3.5 million) and recently traded Josh Willingham (who'll get about $6 million in arbitration), thus cutting about $30 million from their books. Jayson Werth got a $3 million bonus, but only $10 million in '11 salary.
In light of their full-court press for Greinke, who would have commanded a huge contract extension, it's now indisputable that the Nats really were set for an offseason of fireworks, including those "top of the rotation pitchers" that Rizzo talked about seeking.
The Nats delivered the shock with the signing of Werth, but they haven't delivered much of the awe yet. So far, the Nats' winter is probably a slight upgrade thanks to better defense at first base, and in right field and left, too. But no sane team takes on a $126 million contract, including $20 million salaries for Werth in '16 and '17, just so it can avoid 90 losses.
Unless a Garza deal gets done at a sane cost in prospects, this is going to be one weird winter for the Nats. They pulled out the stops. Their Werth contract defines "in for a dime, in for a dollar." But so far what the Nats keep hearing is, "Not enough. Make a higher offer. Add a year to that deal. Call back after you win something."
Little did Ted Lerner know that spending $450 million for a baseball team is like deciding whether your car needs a new muffler. In the end, the sport doesn't give you a choice: It's pay me now or pay me later.