The Washington Nationals are teetering on a precipice so dangerous that their very existence hangs in the balance.
Well, I’m exaggerating of course, but only a little bit.
Since their first year in Washington when an undermanned squad flirted with the playoffs before fading in August, the Nationals have the worst record in all of baseball, with their back-to-back 100-loss seasons capping a four-year backslide into the abyss of embarrassment.
They opened a beautiful new ballpark, but they cannot fill it because no one wants to watch a persistent loser. They have preached patience as “The Plan” grows a fertile farm system from which young studs are supposed to take the place of the flotsam and jetsam of the baseball world.
Only they haven’t. Currently, just two starters—Ryan Zimmerman and John Lannan—can trace their baseball lineage to the Nationals minor league system.
Since 2006, the Nationals’ payroll has averaged $52 million, 26th in a 30-team league. The Lerner family—owners of the franchise—and team president Stan Kasten have preached patience as the team has eschewed the free agent market, promising those funds would be poured into the minors to fertilize the production of those badly needed young stars.
Five years and two starters. Not a particularly great return on their investment.
But now comes the Nationals’ day of reckoning. They are the worst baseball team on the planet with one of the very lowest payrolls in existence. The minor leagues have some prospects that might make a difference, but they are for the most part two or three years away.
The fly-by-night fans left long ago. The weekend baseball fan left not so long after. What remains is a small but proud band of lifelong fans capable of figuring batting averages and earned-run averages in our head.
We’ll never leave.
Those other fans, they can be brought back into the fold, but it will take a total team turnaround in 2010 for that to happen. A third straight nightmare-of-a-season will blow the little remaining goodwill the team has left.
The only option the Nationals have to remain out of the “small-market” club is to infuse this moribund team with some instant major league talent. I’d say $20-24 million ought to do it.
And what a coincidence, because that’s the exact amount of payroll the Nationals swept off their books when they traded or didn’t resign Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard, Nick Johnson, and Austin Kearns. If the Nationals don’t offer arbitration to injured pitcher Scott Olsen—and I don’t think they will—they could have a nest egg in the upper $20 million range available to spend.
In other words, the Nationals could blow $25 or so million on free agents and not increase their fourth-lowest payroll by even a penny.
So I’ve been waiting for some hint as to the team’s intentions during the offseason. I mean, they could sign Matt Holiday and John Garland and not increase the payroll. Those two would add 14 wins and 115 RBI which would translate into—by my estimation—another 15 to 20 wins in 2010.
That would make the Nationals a near .500 club with a $60 million payroll. Do that and I can wait for those little acorns in the minors to turn into mighty oaks.
I didn’t have too long to wait to see which way the Nationals’ wind was blowing this offseason because it’s bringing a terrible stench with it.
In an article on the team’s Web site Wednesday morning, General Manager Mike Rizzo made it very clear that the Nationals have no intention of spending any significant money in the free agent market.
"We don't think that the free-agent class leads us to [pay big money]," Rizzo said. "I believe the things we need or want the most are out there, and we are going to address it. I don't see us going after that super free agent like Matt Holliday or Jon Garland. I don't see us playing on that level. We don't think it's a fit for us."
Really? Do you think it’s possible that the Nationals were going to spend $15 million on Stephen Strasburg last summer or spend $15 million on free agents this winter, but not both? Is that what they are thinking?
If the Nationals didn’t clear all those contracts off their books, I wouldn’t be so adamant about making a free agent splash this winter. But they are in a position to improve the team dramatically without increasing the payroll.
How often does that happen?
I have always been of the belief that the Lerners were not cheap, that they were waiting for the right moment to spend their money on improving the team. I have always been of the belief that building a team from within made a great deal of sense.
But the Nationals have not always chosen well in the amateur draft. Pitchers like Josh Smoker and Colton Willems were supposed to have been in Washington by now, and yet neither has played any higher than Class-A.
I am afraid the Nationals are perfectly content with continuing to lose 100 games a year until they—like the Tampa Bay Rays—have enough No. 1 draft picks on the roster to make the playoffs.
True, the Rays reached the World Series two seasons ago, but it took them a decade full of last place finishes to do it.
Time is short. If the Nationals can’t turn it around in 2010 and if the farm system doesn’t start burping out all-stars quickly, the team is going to become the Mid-Atlantic version of the Florida Marlins, but without the winning records.
Mike Rizzo punched me in the gut when he announced that the Nationals weren’t interested in bettering themselves. Oh sure, they are going to try to make some trades, but they are going to have to give up talent to get it, and that isn’t the way to quickly improve the team.
I’ll withhold my final judgment until January, but things aren’t looking very good at the moment.
Memo to Mike Rizzo: Spend baby, spend.