To spend or not to spend? That is the question facing the Nationals’ front office as the baseball Hot Stove season begins.
The pragmatic argument would urge the team to hold back on free agents this winter. Despite plenty of attractive targets, including pitchers C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and sluggers Mark Teixeira and Manny Ramirez, the odds of one, or even several, of those players would push the Nationals from the basement to playoff contention. Would it be worth millions of dollars to finish in fourth place of the National League East?
But, wins and losses aside, there’s also a reason to show a struggling fan base that its owners actually care about this franchise. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money, and while, say Teixeira, might not earn the team many wins, he may earn some good will for the Nationals’ embattled owners, the Lerners.
And no, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to call them embattled. Let’s review the supporting evidence.
The District of Columbia put itself through the political ringer to hammer out the financial agreement to build the new $450 million-plus Nationals Park and bring the team to Washington from Montreal. The first night in the new park was a smashing success, but there were a few areas where the construction hadn’t been completed. So the Lerners withheld the $3.5 million they owed D.C. in rent and sued the District for breach of contract. The suit was settled, and the Lerners sent the rent check – after the District agreed to cough up $4.25 million more to finish off the disputed punch list before next season.
It wasn’t “wrong” of the Lerners to dispute the contract, per se, but it didn’t earn them any warm fuzzies from a fan base that is frustrated by an on-field product that seems destined for a prolonged term in purgatory. The farm system is growing, but the cash crops are struggling. Last year was a prime opportunity for top prospects to break into the big league roster. Few did. Even fewer had a substantive impact.
With the team slipping to a 59-102 season, there is little wonder why fans neglect to tune in the Nationals on television or show up in person. They might tolerate taxation without representation, but they’re not sadists.
And so the Lerners have a problem – throw some money out there on free agents, even though the changes may only be cosmetic, or keep their hands in their pockets and keep planning for brighter days ahead?
The fact that the people who built them their ballpark deserve a good team says they should spend their cash.
The fact that a good team is more than a mere one or two signings away says they should keep their cash.
They should spend it on free agents to convince the current players that the organization will provide them with the tools to compete.
They should pass on free agents to spend instead on acquiring more tools – like probable No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg.
They should spend it to show that they didn’t buy the team solely to acquire lucrative building rights to a future developmental hotbed in Southeast D.C.
They should sit out the Hot Stove season because the economy is surely hitting them in the wallet as well, even if that wallet does happen to be a little heftier than most of ours.
It’s not an easy decision and I’m not sure if either course is the right or wrong answer. I just hope they pick one direction and stick to it because the middle ground is the wrong answer. Signing role players in the mold of Ronnie Belliard and the now-demoted Dmitri Young doesn’t help. Bringing in former stars à la Jason Giambi, Ken Griffey, Jr., Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, even if they come on the cheap, does not help. They’re discounted because their better days are behind them. Griffey and Pedro have already proven they are susceptible to the injury bug. Do the Nats really need more injury-prone players?
I would love to see Mark Teixeira suit up for the Nationals. Not only do I consider the slick-fielding, slugging first baseman the top free agent in this class, but he’s young enough that in three years, when the Nats may finally be in contention, he’ll still be playing in his prime.
I would love to see Bobby Abreu in a Nats uniform, ditto for pitchers John Garland or Oliver Perez, young(ish) guys with some potential for better days who won’t break the bank like Teixeira would.
Adding those four players would likely substantially increase the Nats’ payroll by about $45-60 million next year. That’s a lot. It also would make the Nats’ woeful lineup look a lot better and make the summer experience at Nationals Park a lot more palatable. Would it be a cure-all? No. Would it bring a playoff trip? Probably not, but it would convince a suddenly skeptical fan base that the Lerners have not forsaken this franchise. And earning that distinction could be priceless.