-- Bolstered by an enhanced payroll that may change their ability to compete in the free agent and trade markets, the Washington Nationals made what General Manager Jim Bowden characterized as a "significant" and "very competitive" offer to right-hander A.J. Burnett, but still will lose out on the marquee catch of the pitching market to the Toronto Blue Jays, a source close to the talks said late Monday night.
Another baseball source with knowledge of the talks said the Nationals' offer, made after the field of competitors for Burnett appeared to be dwindling, was for at least $40 million over four years, though Burnett opted for five guaranteed years and between $52 million and $55 million from Toronto. Washington's offer was on the table only because team officials expect to be working with a budget of around $60 million, an increase of about $7 million to $8 million over last season's payroll.
The Blue Jays' offer, though, "blew everybody away," the source said, and it looked as if it would be enough to bring the potential ace to Toronto. The St. Louis Cardinals were also in the running, and offered a package similar to that of the Nats.
Still, the fact that Washington even made such an offer was one of the more surprising developments during the first day of baseball's winter meetings, which began Monday at the Anatole Hotel here. Burnett's agent, Darek Braunecker, arrived at the meetings apparently weighing potential deals with Toronto and St. Louis. Nationals officials, though, insisted throughout Monday that they were players for the former Florida Marlin, who has a career record of just 49-50 but possesses an electric, 98-mph fastball and enormous potential. He went 12-12 with a 3.44 ERA in 2005.
"We jumped right into the middle of the fire, and I think we're a team that he's considering," Bowden said. "We made an offer that's very competitive."
Toronto was the only team to guarantee Burnett a fifth year. Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi said Monday night that he wouldn't increase that offer. "Our offer's been there for a while," Ricciardi said.
Bowden said the Nationals were prepared to make a second offer to Burnett. He wouldn't go into specifics, but it's possible that the Nationals included a vesting option that would become guaranteed if Burnett reached certain goals regarding starts or innings pitched.
Braunecker didn't return phone calls Monday night. Burnett's wife, however, grew up in Bowie, and that could be a factor in his decision. "I think he and his wife, geographically, like the area," Bowden said.
A group of Nationals' officials, led by Bowden, met with Braunecker and Burnett for dinner last month in Miami. But the potential for a deal with Washington was viewed with skepticism throughout the industry because of the Nationals' tenuous situation. Bowden said Monday that team president Tony Tavares still hasn't provided him with a firm budget for 2006, but a source said that $60 million is a "reasonable" estimate, and it's possible that they may get slightly more than that.
The Nationals have already lost free agents Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco, and won't pursue others such as outfielder Preston Wilson. Couple those losses with an expanded payroll provided by MLB, and the Nationals might be in position to improve themselves in 2006 just when they were considered baseball's afterthought. Bowden met with agent Scott Boras, whose pitching clients include Kevin Millwood, Jarrod Washburn, Kenny Rogers and Jeff Weaver, late Monday night, and "the talks went well," he said.
The Nationals also held trade discussions with both Florida regarding center fielder Juan Pierre, whom the Nationals would love to add as a much-needed leadoff hitter, and Arizona regarding right-hander Javier Vazquez, the former Montreal Expo who has demanded a trade to be closer to his home in Puerto Rico.
"We're in a marketplace that's very competitive in both dollars as well as players," Bowden said.
A Marlins official said that the Nationals likely don't have a good match for the Marlins to land Pierre, but it's possible a third team could get involved in order to facilitate a trade to Washington. Pierre is coming off a season in which his batting average and on-base percentage each fell nearly 50 points -- from .326 to .276 and from .374 to .326, respectively. But he stole 57 bases, 12 more than the Nationals did as a team.
Vazquez went 11-15 with a 4.42 ERA in 2005, but Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, who managed Vazquez in Montreal in 2002 and 2003, said he would welcome Vazquez's return. "He's got outstanding stuff," Robinson said.
The market could also be heating up for Nationals outfielder Brad Wilkerson. Though Bowden said, "We've had very few discussions involving Brad," there were indications that Toronto may be preparing to try to find a match for Wilkerson. Ricciardi has long coveted Wilkerson, who is coming off a down year in which he hit just .248 with 147 strikeouts. Ricciardi said his team might be able to deal pitching, and the possible offers include swingman Miguel Batista or 26-year-old starter Dave Bush.
With some of the top left-handed relievers on the market already gone, they have discussed trying to retain Joey Eischen, who has been with the Montreal-Washington organization since 2001. And they are officially in search of a backup catcher after Gary Bennett signed with St. Louis for one year and $800,000. John Flaherty is a possibility.