Dressed in a dark blue suit, having already removed his brand-new Toronto Blue Jays jersey and the matching cap, A.J. Burnett stood, smiling, in a ballroom at the Anatole Hotel on Tuesday afternoon, the latest piece in Toronto's offseason spending spree.
Had circumstances been decidedly different, Burnett might have been anointed as the newest Washington National at baseball's winter meetings. But the Nationals, in the words of agent Darek Braunecker, made an offer that was "too little, too late," and a realistic opportunity to sign the perceived prize of the free agent pitching class passed in large part because the Nationals are owned by Major League Baseball.
"The ownership deal was a big issue with Darek and I," Burnett said after the Blue Jays announced his five-year, $55 million deal. "They don't have an owner or a stadium in place."
The Nationals, for their part, tried to pick up and move on from their last-gasp entrance into the Burnett sweepstakes, which ultimately came down to the St. Louis Cardinals and the Blue Jays. General Manager Jim Bowden said he made offers to every remaining upper-echelon free agent pitcher Tuesday -- Kevin Millwood, Matt Morris, Kenny Rogers and Jarrod Washburn. But others at the winter meetings predicted that the Nationals' ability to sign any of those players could be hindered by the ownership situation and the political wrangling over the construction of a stadium in the District.
"No question [the lack of ownership] is going to play a role with everybody they have interest in," Braunecker said. "There's no doubt about that. You're entering into a situation where basically there's no assurances, no certainty to any aspect of it. It's a tough battle for them. It's an unfair battle for them, is what it is."
Even though the Nationals will have roughly $60 million to spend on player payroll -- $7.2 million more than they spent last season -- they could be hindered when they desperately need to land at least one starting pitcher and would very much like to add a leadoff man and a power hitter.
"I feel it's been made very clear by the commissioner's office and by [team president] Tony Tavares that we have the dollars to go get one of these premium pitchers," Bowden said.
The Nationals didn't receive an idea about their payroll until this week. By that point, it was too late to offset the work Braunecker had done with the Blue Jays and Cardinals. And, in the end, the Nationals were short in years (four) and dollars (roughly $40 million). "Certainly, there are things that all clubs fight whether it's geography or lack of winning or finances," Braunecker said. "They're fighting a whole number of issues."
The Nationals should know by Wednesday whether they are in the running for Morris. St. Louis must either sign Morris or offer him arbitration by Wednesday or it loses the right to negotiate with him until May 1. Millwood, who had the best ERA in the American League for Cleveland last season, will almost certainly get four years and well over $40 million, and one Nationals source said the club's offer is more than that. A cheaper option, but one fraught with peril, would be Rogers, the 41-year-old former Texas Ranger who was suspended for shoving a TV cameraman last summer. "It's an issue," Bowden said. Any deal would likely be for one year with incentives.
On other fronts, the Nationals continue to pursue Florida center fielder Juan Pierre via a trade, but the Chicago Cubs appear to be much closer to acquiring the leadoff man. And a source said they have discussed the idea of sending Brad Wilkerson to Pittsburgh for one of the three pitchers the Pirates are dangling -- Kip Wells, Josh Fogg or Mark Redman. They also continue to talk to Arizona about right-hander Javier Vazquez.
Bowden played down rumors that Washington is about to swap outfielder Terrmel Sledge for San Diego leadoff man Dave Roberts.