Just by Pursuing Teixeira, Nats Are Making a Move

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page D01

By approving one contract offer earlier this month -- a $160 million proposal to free agent Mark Teixeira -- Washington Nationals principal owner Ted Lerner invalidated the longest-standing concern people had about him. Since buying the team almost three seasons earlier, the Lerner group had spent a total of $155 million on payroll. The Nationals had paid their players about $55 million in 2008. They lived by the code of small-market austerity, squarely aligned with the rest of baseball's Have-Nots.

For that reason, Washington's pursuit of Teixeira has altered perceptions of the franchise, both within the industry and within its own clubhouse. Perhaps the Lerners are cautious about how to spend money, but when given the right reason to spend, they are most certainly willing.

Since the winter meetings, when Washington made its offer to Teixeira, the Nationals have wrestled for a spot in a bidding war alongside some of baseball's wealthiest and most successful teams. Coveting a spot among such teams is easier than obtaining it, and in the same way, offering money to the right player is far easier than persuading the right player to take it. But either way, as Teixeira and his agent, Scott Boras, sort through the various offers, Washington already has bolstered its self-image.

"I mean, that's a big move, and it definitely shows the rest of the players -- everybody else in the clubhouse, everybody else in the organization -- that it's time for a change," said Willie Harris, a teammate of Teixeira's in 2007 with Atlanta. "Whether we get Tex or not, just trying to get him shows everybody else in the clubhouse that it's time to win. . . . God knows, I hope Tex comes here."

Most in the industry still view that as a long shot. Talk across the sport still suggests the Yankees might consider a run at Teixeira, 28. The Angels and Red Sox -- the two other teams with proposals of eight years and at least $160 million -- both offer something that Washington cannot: the chance to play for an immediate contender. For all of their ambition, the Nationals have no history of winning, no history of attracting top talent.

The Nationals can help their cause by boosting their contract offer with incentives and a comfortable one-way out clause -- allowing Teixeira, say, to escape the contract after three or four years if he's dissatisfied and the team has yet to win. But really, they would need Teixeira to make a leap of faith.

"He would kind of shock the baseball world if he signed with them," San Diego General Manager Kevin Towers said. "But I think they were just waiting and trying to identify the right guy to build around. With [Ryan] Zimmerman at third base, Teixeira at first -- those are two guys to build around for quite some time. Even though it's a huge financial commitment, that's two guys. And to get to the point where you can be competitive, you need that strong middle of the order."

To fully explain why the Nationals are the most surprising entrant in the Teixeira derby, one must examine their recent spending history. In the past year, Washington gave its money to the wrong people (free agent Paul Lo Duca, for instance) and withheld it at the wrong times. They were the only club that failed to sign its 2008 first-round draft pick.

"They lost credibility with the lost No. 1 draft pick," one prominent agent said. "They lost credibility within the industry."

The Nationals are now trying to sign a player whose total contract value might eclipse any player not named Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter. Boras is said to be seeking as much as $180 million for Teixeira.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company