A D.C. Game of Moneyball

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Nats' final home game of the year Wednesday combined all the paradoxical and troubling threads of a season in which the team had the game's worst record and saw attendance drop 22 percent. Yet these same Nats, who will certainly receive revenue-sharing funds from other clubs this winter, operate on such a low budget and possess such a healthy bottom line that they are the financial envy of most other franchises.

The combination of Nats potential, both as a team and a market, has stood in contrast all year to the team's deluge of 103 losses. All that was illustrated, to an almost ludicrously degree, by a Justin Maxwell walk-off grand slam to sweep the Mets before 23,944. That two-out, full-count blast in the ninth off New York reliever Francisco Rodriguez brought cheers but also a hard question. Why are such moments, which make addiction to baseball go viral in any town, so rare here?

As Washington's obvious promise has been thwarted by its gruesome won-lost reality, resentment toward the way the Nats do business, already prevalent in Washington, is now spreading through the game. This offseason may be the juncture at which both local fans, as well as executives throughout the game, decide if the Lerners are responsible baseball citizens.

The Nats, who clinched the game's worst record on Wednesday thanks to a Pirates win, are on the verge of becoming a lightning rod of criticism, especially by big-market teams that pay into the game's huge revenue-sharing pot, according to numerous baseball sources contacted over the last three months.

"You're probably going to see revenue-sharing reform pretty soon," an American League executive said. "It's usually small-market teams like Pittsburgh that are the issue."

The Pirates, who have fielded 17 straight losing teams yet concede they have made a profit in each of the past six seasons, exemplify the business model: keep the payroll tiny, lose a ton of games every year, yet turn a profit thanks to revenue sharing and then claim it's the only way to survive in a tiny market.

But the Bucs have an excuse: Their metropolitan market -- like Denver, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City and Milwaukee -- is less than half Washington's size (No. 9 in the United States).

If the Nats keep operating as they have, they'll be seen as the only top-10 market with the gall to act like a bottom-five town.

When Major League Baseball ran the Nats, the Lerners inherited a 2006 payroll of $63 million that many considered skimpy after the Nats averaged 33,000 fans in '05. Yet the Lerners cut that budget immediately to $37 million and have not returned to $63 million. One consequence is that Forbes magazine ranked the Nationals the second-most profitable team in baseball in '08.

Even with the recent contracts to Adam Dunn, Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg, the Nats' payroll will still plummet from $61 million this year to $40 million in current '10 obligations, close to dead last in baseball.

The Nats' position: We won't tell you anything about our finances, but just wait 'til next year.

"We are tremendously excited. The next big step is right there to be taken," said President Stan Kasten, who speaks for the team. "This is not a great year if you want a [free agent like CC] Sabathia or Mark Teixeira. But the players who are available are just what we need: a veteran starter in the rotation, two more arms in the bullpen and a middle infielder who helps our defense.

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