-- At some point, one would think Washington's new Major League Baseball franchise -- assuming it does, at some point, play in Washington -- would want to plaster the streets with posters of its most famous players, luring its new fan base with a sexy, big-name deal. What better way to energize fans than providing them with a well-known name or a pretty face?
"We can't do that," General Manager Jim Bowden said. "With the dollars we're given, we've got to put the best team on the field. At the end of the day, fans want to win. I don't care how many superstars you have on the team."
As the free agent signing period opens Friday, Bowden must ignore the issues that are central to the future of the franchise -- finding an owner and finishing a stadium deal -- and concentrate on those important for building a baseball team. Both Bowden and team president Tony Tavares said that the marketing must take care of itself.
"Jim's got to decide how to spend the money. Do you spend it on one guy, or do you spread it around?" Tavares said. "But this is all about competition. We're a young team. Getting a name for the sake of getting a name doesn't make any sense."
Bowden said he will concentrate on maximizing the Expos' limited payroll -- expected to be about $50 million -- by being creative and trying to pitch the Washington franchise and market despite the fact that agents and their clients don't know who will run the club in the long term. He will be aggressive -- beginning Friday, when he said he expects to offer contracts to five free agents.
"As I've had conversations with agents and players, I've said, 'This is a very exciting time, and an exciting opportunity for players, because you get to be the first group that gets to go and play in Washington and build something special," Bowden said. "This is a market that's going to have the political backing, the business backing. It's a team that, if you look at it from the sensible position, is going to be able to be a powerhouse."
The early returns from agents, however, are mixed.
Adam Katz, the agent for Sammy Sosa and others said none of his players have ruled out playing in Washington. But veteran agent Barry Axelrod -- who represents pitcher Matt Clement, first baseman Jeff Bagwell and others -- said some of his clients have "crossed Washington off the list."
"It's just too early to tell whether Washington will be attractive," he added.
Most agents agreed that the situation will likely be preferable to that in the team's former home of Montreal, where crowds were sparse and part of the home schedule was played in Puerto Rico.
"I think, quite candidly, the reluctance of players to go to Montreal was not only because it was a different country and a different tax structure, but it was a different culture," veteran agent Alan Hendricks said. "Now, if one of my players asks, 'What do you think?', I'll tell them that I think the situation could be great. They've got a dynamo like Jim Bowden. Baseball's going to consider it important to create a competitive team there, and it's a product that will energize a whole new fan base."
Bowden believes the team has three immediate needs: pitching, shortstop and a third baseman who can hit for power.
Four members of the starting rotation will likely hold their spots, led by veteran righty Livan Hernandez (11-15, 3.60 earned run average), who was a workhorse, making 35 starts and throwing 255 innings. But the other three spent time on the disabled list -- Tomo Ohka with a broken arm, Tony Armas Jr. with shoulder problems, and Zach Day with a broken finger. Still, Bowden is optimistic -- if they're healthy.
"For our payroll," Bowden said, "that's pretty good."
With his limited budget, Bowden said he might build depth with middle relievers, where he thinks he might be able to find some bargain talent.
"We can't compete with Atlanta's payroll for their rotation, so I can't beat you in the first five innings," Bowden said. "I've got to beat you in the sixth, seventh and eighth to win in a small or middle market."
The Expos have four position players on which to build: first baseman Nick Johnson, first baseman/outfielder Brad Wilkerson, second baseman Jose Vidro and catcher Brian Schneider. The Expos traded shortstop Orlando Cabrera to the Boston Red Sox in July, forcing rookie Maicer Izturis into the lineup. He hit .206.
"He's not ready," Bowden said. "I only saw him play four games, but with the bat, in four games, he's not ready. It doesn't mean you can't rush him."
The shortstop market is deep, and it's possible, a major league source said, that Bowden could bring in Barry Larkin, as a mentor. But Larkin -- who will be 41 in April -- can't play shortstop every day, the source said. The Expos could make a run at Alex Gonzalez of San Diego.
Free agent Tony Batista played third for the Expos in 2004, and he hit 32 homers with 110 RBI. But his anemic .272 on-base percentage, as well as average-at-best defense (19 errors) has the Expos willing to look elsewhere despite the team's need for right-handed power. Bowden said it's possible he could turn to one of the eight other third basemen left on the market -- possibly Minnesota's Corey Koskie -- or make a trade.
"Competition is huge," Bowden said. "But certainly, we need a shortstop. We need a third baseman. We don't have either one. You look at our holes, those two have to be met -- somehow."