Step One Is Just the Start

Friday, November 14, 2008; Page E01

With their trade for Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham this week, the Nats finally took an initial, though still far from sufficient, step to increase payroll, improve their major league product immediately and give the city, their fans and even their own executives the support that any team needs.

Is this a sign that ownership gets it? That, in General Manager Jim Bowden's words, "Last year was an embarrassment that can't be repeated"? Or will the dollop of credibility provided by this deal lull the Lerner family into zipping its wallet and turning away from further trades or free agent signings that their execs bring them?

Baseball is watching to see whether the Nats will develop their market or alienate it as badly as the Orioles, who have needed years to rebuild goodwill. To see if Ryan Zimmerman re-signs as free agency approaches. To find out if President Stan Kasten, on the short list for team-building jobs, finishes The Plan or feels stuck in a bad fit and, sooner or later, skips. To see if free agents light up, or laugh, when Washington is mentioned.

The stakes are high this winter. The Nats have rebuilt their farm system sufficiently that their youth pipeline to 2010 is credible. Yet, by then, even if Olsen and Willingham play well and get larger salaries, the Nats will still have one of the lowest payrolls in the game, far below comparable markets. Will the Nats grasp this opportunity or waste it?

Few franchises ever have a $40-million-a-year payroll hole that they can fill over a three-winter span to create a winner. But, as older players leave, the Nats will. Already, the subtraction of Paul Lo Duca, Felipe López, Chad Cordero and others have cut nearly $20 million from last year's payroll. Olsen and Willingham won't even get half of it.

Yes, the Nats can afford any sane price for probable No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg in the '09 draft and, in theory, even have room for Mark Teixeira, though signing him, even if you match the market, is a world away from wanting him.

In a staggering economy, the Nats' low payroll is suddenly an advantage. Many teams, already leveraged up, are terrified. Except for a Manny Ramírez or Teixeira, the price tags for players may never be much lower than they will be this offseason. "The whole world has changed in the last two months," Kasten said. "Baseball won't be an exception."

Will the Nats do what classic, conservative businesses often do during downturns -- use their previous frugality to expand while competitors are scared? Or will they look at the debt burden from a $450 million purchase price and pull in their financial horns?

We'll find out long before Opening Day.

Fans should enjoy this Marlin heist, even at the risk of praising the Nats back into inactivity. It's a traditional lopsided baseball trade, based on economic disparity. A bad team with a new park and money to spend (Nats) rips off an impoverished team in an old park (Fish) that can't afford to keep its good-but-not-great, arbitration-eligible players.

Such a deal is not glamorous, like winning a bidding war. It is nitty-gritty work, putting together a package of prospects that is slightly better than other offers. "Not many look under rocks better than Bowden," said one executive.

Seldom is a team so bad that it can be improved by adding an 8-11 pitcher and a 15-home run hitter. But that's the Nats. They look at Olsen, whose 30 big-league wins in the last three years are far more than anybody else in their rotation, and Willingham, who had 89 RBI in '07 and 26 homers in '06, and they drool. Two real big league players!

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