Any team that deals with the Washington Nationals at baseball's winter meetings, which begin today in Dallas, will have a clear understanding that the club is unlike any other on hand at the Anatole Hotel. With a player payroll still to be determined by Major League Baseball, Nationals President Tony Tavares had decided to join General Manager Jim Bowden at the meetings, a move designed to give the impression that the Nationals won't be mere bystanders when the meetings commence.
"I need to go so that we're not hanging Jim out to dry down there," Tavares said. "Other teams need to know that he has the authority to do what he's proposing, and the best way to show that is if I'm there providing backup."
Though a few other team presidents and CEOs will make their way to Dallas, Tavares's presence provides yet another example of the state of flux in which the Nationals find themselves. Negotiations for a lease on a new stadium with District officials neared completion over the weekend, but the long struggle for that deal sapped Tavares's ability to deal with the issues surrounding the makeup of the Nationals. Only now can he turn back to the matter of finalizing a budget for player payroll, one he can then hand to Bowden so the general manager knows how much money he can spend on his team. All this happens as MLB still owns the team more than 14 months after it moved the franchise from Montreal.
Need more evidence of chaos? Bowden, ostensibly, remains a candidate for the GM job in Boston, though that window is likely closing. He met with Red Sox officials twice and has not yet been offered the job. Jim Beattie, the former co-GM of the Baltimore Orioles, reportedly had a third meeting with the Red Sox last week, and Boston sent a contingent to Dallas that doesn't include anyone holding the title "general manager."
Meantime, Washington's assistant general manager, Tony Siegle, is a possible candidate for the same job with the San Francisco Giants, where he once worked under GM Brian Sabean. The Giants have not yet asked the Nationals for permission to speak with Siegle, but that is likely to change this week.
And though sources said last week that it is likely that Frank Robinson will return to manage the Nationals franchise for a fifth year, there has been no official announcement about that situation, leaving Washington as one of only two teams (the Dodgers are the other) with uncertainty around who will be in the dugout next year.
It is with that backdrop that the Nationals will try to improve on a club that went 81-81 and finished last in the National League East in 2005.
Already, the team has lost two of its most important pitchers -- starter Esteban Loaiza and swingman Hector Carrasco -- to free agency in deals that totaled more than $27 million. The only additions thus far have been bench players Marlon Anderson and Damian Jackson.
"We need pitching," Bowden said last week. "It's obvious that's what we need, and that's what we intend to pursue and work on at the meetings."
Washington has been in constant contact with the agent for A.J. Burnett, the hard-throwing right-hander who, despite a career record of 49-50, is considered the prize of the starting pitching class. Darek Braunecker, Burnett's agent, has said the Nationals are in the running. The theory is that Washington can take the $10 million it would have spent annually on Loaiza and Carrasco and turn it into an offer for Burnett. But that won't happen until Tavares gets a final budget from MLB. Washington has not yet made an offer.
Bowden has also been in touch with agent Scott Boras about his stable of pitchers, which includes Kevin Millwood, Jarrod Washburn and Kenny Rogers. Bowden will almost certainly discuss all three this week. Another target is former St. Louis stalwart Matt Morris, who has never had a losing season in his eight-year career.
And there is the other possibility that looms over the winter meetings: the blockbuster trade. There were indications late in the season that Bowden felt the Nationals needed major changes to remain competitive in the NL East, a division in which the New York Mets are rapidly rising, the Florida Marlins rapidly falling and the Atlanta Braves seem to win regardless of what the others do. He would like both a leadoff man and a run-producing bat, and former Marlins outfielder Juan Encarnacion, a free agent, is a possibility for the latter spot, though he has never driven in more than 94 runs in a season.
Washington's primary chip in a trade is outfielder-first baseman Brad Wilkerson, who clubs value because of his versatility and ability to get on base. Wilkerson, who made $3.05 million in 2005, is eligible for arbitration, and with Boras as his agent, it's possible negotiations could be difficult. The Chicago Cubs are among the teams that have interest in Wilkerson, who hit leadoff for Washington last year but who most club officials feel would be better-suited for the middle of a the lineup.
Bowden has his supporters and his detractors throughout baseball, but few argue that he is one of the most creative GMs in the business, with the ability to figure out ways to go after some of the more prominent names on the market, such as Texas's Alfonso Soriano.
"We're not going to sit still," Bowden said. "We're going to try to be as active as we possibly can."