Thursday, January 25, 2007

Boswell Takes on Lerners - Finally, Washington's don of the baseball beat, Thomas Boswell, is taking on the Washington Nationals where it counts -- ripping them for the product they 'plan' to put on the field. Washington Post's Boswell: An Embarrassment of Pitches.

The District of Columbia made a phenomenal investment in this team, producing a stadium that will cost $610 million, or more (depending on who is doing the counting). That doesn't even include the funds the city expended in restoring the baseball field to RFK, for the interim. There was an unspoken bargain -- that the owners of the team would make a sincere effort to put a quality product on the field. A major league stadium calls for a major league team.

The new ownership group, led by the Lerner family here in Bethesda, is breaking that bargain, and they're barely even trying to pretend otherwise. In his column for Friday's Washington Post, Boswell correctly opines that the Nationals "severely underestimated a worst-case scenario in which they might report to Florida without an actual major league pitching staff."

This has been a terrible off-season for the Nats, and Alfonso Soriano's move to the Cubs is the least of it. Losing Soriano was not unexpected. As Boswell pointed out, no one expected the Nationals to come up with the scratch to sign the leading free agent hitter. The real problem is the Nationals didn't take the money they were willing to give Soriano, and spread it around, to bring in some decent major-league talent. In fact, the Nationals essentially ignored the free-agent market.

If everything breaks the Nationals way, and they don't have any major injuries (has that ever happened?), they could have a decent starting line-up. Of course, that would mean Nick Johnson comes back healthy, or Larry Broadway makes the jump to the big leagues, without missing a beat (that hasn't happened too often). It means, that Nook Logan hits better than the .250 hitter he has been so far, justifying the Nats' confidence in giving him the center field job. It means Kory Casto, Ryan Church and Alex Escobar give the Nats a good left fielder (and, possibly a center fielder, if Logan isn't up to snuff). It means Brian Schneider hits like he did this past September, and not the way he did in the first 4-5 months of the season. And, perhaps least likely, it means that Christian Guzman plays like the shortstop the Nats thought they were buying when they signed him two years ago -- not the astoundingly inept shortstop they got when he took the field in the Nats' new uniform.

As if all that seems problematic, just take a look at the Nats' [ahem] pitching staff. Take a gander at Boswell's description of this farcical assemblage. "Washington will welcome 37 -- count them, 37 -- pitching vagabonds, orthopedic anomalies and surgical experiments to their training camp in Viera, Fla." As Boswell further notes, "If you don't immediately recognize some prime rotation "candidates" like Tim Redding, Jerome Williams, Joel Hanrahan and Brandon Claussen, there are reasons. Some have been out of the majors for years. Some just never arrived."

Right now, the Nats' rotation might be John Patterson -- who was quite good last year...until his arm broke down, and he required surgery. They let Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas go, and lost in their pursuit of Tomo Okha (his agent said the Nats offer wasn't even in the ballpark). Backing up Patterson (and we must pray that he is healthy), are Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, Beltran Perez, Billy Traber and Mike O'Connor. Each one of these guys struck out in their first shot at the rotation with Frank Robinson's squad last year. Hill, Bergmann and Traber were each sent back to the minors -- O'Connor would have joined them, but suddenly disclosed an injury that sent him to the disabled list instead.

What do the Nats' say in their defense? Well, they talk about "The Plan." They are investing in a scouting system to rebuild their minor league system, which was stripped bare, while MLB prepared to contract the franchise out of existence. There's nothing wrong with investing in scouting -- every team should. That's a bare minimum to running a major league franchise. It's not just a major league team, but an entire organization, meant to support the big club. Of course, there is no guarantee that prospects will ever amount to anything. The roads are littered with great discoveries and over-hyped prospects that didn't live up to expectations.

Why do the Yankees deal their great prospects for top major leaguers? Why are they so willing to part with draft picks, when they sign top free agents? The answer is simple, and one need only point to the Yankees' record over the last dozen years for the answer. To be sure, free-agent signings are not guaranteed performers. The Yankees have had some famous busts. The Nats had a major disappointment with Guzman, yet they are rolling the dice on him, all over again. The fact is major leaguers are basically known quantities. Certainly, each legitimate major leaguer is worth at least a busload of prospects (and that's not just a question of their salary).

The Nats plan on losing this year. They hold out the prospect that they will break out the checkbook next year, when they can anticipate strong revenues, as a result of the April '08 opening of the new stadium. Meanwhile, the Nats' think they will do OK financially this year, by not spending money. As Boswell writes. "The Nats expected to have a bad team in '07. The idea didn't bother them. They like the prospect of a high draft position. They think season-ticket sales will be underpinned by the desire of fans to grab a place in line for tickets in the new park."

The Nats overestimate the appeal the team will have this year, thinking folks will tolerate whatever they put on the field. If Boswell is correct, the Nats expect season ticket sales to be strong as folks jockey for position in the new stadium. Apparently, the Lerners think the love affair with the team will continue, even if they try to pass off a minor league quality product in major league uniforms. It won't happen that way.

Boswell fears the Nats will embarrass not just themselves, but their sport. In truth, the risk is far greater. They risk losing the fans. If the Nats don't find a way to spend some money and bring in decent pitching, the fans will turn their backs not just on this years team, but on the franchise. Even if the Nats are able to recover from the impending disaster that will be their '08 season, they will lose a great deal of money this year. People will not come to the stadium. They will not buy the overpriced hot dogs and beer. They will not buy the oodles of merchandise that a popular team is able to sell.

After two years of fighting to get Comcast Cable to carry their games, I have to wonder what was the point? The Nats' ratings will be horrible -- no one will watch their games. Frankly, I'd rather have it go back to the way it was -- no Nats on TV, and Comcast not charging me the extra $2 or $3 a month to carry MASN. What's the point in watching a game, when you already know the outcome -- even, before it starts?

I was a big Nats' supporter the first two years. Heck, I drove to Philadelphia to see their very first game. This year, my discretionary spending will go for D.C. United games. I can't see going to see more than a handful of Nats games -- and even then, only to see the opposition. Right now, it seems pretty certain that the Nats won't just be bad. They may be historically awful. The worst team in D.C history. Is that part of "The Plan?" If it is, "The Plan" needs to be scrapped -- it's starting to look as ill-conceived as the 'plan' the Bush Administration had when it went into Iraq.

The Lerners were freaked out by the salaries being paid on the free-agent market. They weren't the only ones. Yet, they have been penny-wise and pound-foolish. More than any other team, the Nationals needed to open up their checkbook this year. There seems to be no institutional memory or common sense. Last offseason, the Nats had a shot at A.J. Burnett. In fact, everyone assumed that he would most want to come to Baltimore or Washington, to be close to his wife's family. The Nats couldn't spend the money to put out a competitive team, so Burnett went elsewhere. Things are worse now, and no one will want to come to play in Washington.

The Nats are basically going to play themselves out of the free agent market. Even if they wanted to start spending, they will find few takers -- and the best players will surely go elsewhere. When was the last time the Royals signed a free agent? It isn't just that the Royals don't want to spend the money. No one wants to sign with them. Detroit got lucky with Rodriguez a few years ago because he had faith in the track record of Tigers' GM Dombrowski -- faith that was rewarded with a World Series appearance last season. The Nationals, in contrast, will not be able to bring in one or two big free agents to build around -- they need to be able to prove they can compete, before the top players will agree to come here. No one is expecting the Nats to win a lot of games this year, but they need to do something drastic just to field a team that can be competitive each night.

The Lerners have promised not to take dime one out of the franchise for ten years. They clearly don't get it. You don't buy a pro sports team to make money. If money is to be made, that will happen when the team wins championships, or when the team is resold. A franchise that has been run into the ground isn't going to earn dime one, or be worth much on the market. It's a snowball effect, and the Nats are rapidly picking up speed downhill.

For a lighter take on the miserable season ahea, I suggest a site called the Nationals Enquirer. Nationals Enquirer: Abandon Ship. It's witty stuff, especially the blogger's calling the team the "NAAAtionals." I think I'll borrow that one, myself..although NAAtionals might be more accurate, as the Nats pitchers are more Double-A material than Triple-A.

If you take a peek at the blog, you'll find a funny post on a story I missed at the beginning of the week: The Rockies' signing of Brian Lawrence. This means that the Nationals traded for a guy who spent his entire time with the team on the disabled list -- and, when they're most desperate for pitching, especially pitching that can be had on the cheap, they let him sign somewhere else for $750,000. This was just mind-boggingly stupid. Is anybody running the ship, or has it been completely abandoned already?

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