Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: Free Agents Are No Quick Fix for Nats


This is getting old. Right?

The Nats not playing well, it’s a little too reminiscent of all the seasons Washington fans wasted on the Senators, isn’t it? The fans — and the taxpayers that are footing the bill for the new ballpark — deserve better don’t they?

That was the thrust of Tom Boswell’s column in the Washington Post on Wednesday. Towards the end, he essentially threw down the gauntlet when it comes to this off-season’s spending.

“This winter, Ben Sheets, C.C. Sabathia, Orlando Hudson and Rafael Furcal will be available. Get one, at least. No excuses.”

His logic is that baseball in Washington has come too far for ownership not to toss in that extra dollar and spend on free agents, if for no other reason than to convince fans — who aren’t exactly storming the turnstiles of Nationals Park — that at least the team is trying.

It’s a rational point of view. No one wants to watch his or her home team slog through seven consecutive games only once scoring more than a single run, as the Nats recently did. However, I’m not sure that an additional 10 games in the win column that one or two free agents might have provided is an adequate justification for the tens of millions of dollars such an investment would have required.

To me, the goal of every team, every season, should be to contend for a World Series title. Entering this offseason, it was pretty apparent that the Nationals’ time to contend lay much farther away than one winter. So, why just throw away money? Is one additional player really going to help you contend? If not, why spend the money on a player who will be way past his prime by the time the Nats are ready to challenge for the World Series?

Look at this past summer’s free agent crop. Would any of these names have made a huge impact on the Nationals’ this year? Andruw Jones (.165 batting average, 2 home runs and 7 RBI), Torii Hunter (.268, 8 HR, 31 RBI), Kosuke Fukudome (.295, 4 HR, 25 RBI), Carlos Silva (3-7 with a 5.79 ERA).

Aside from Alex Rodriguez, the best signings of last year’s free agent class were probably Aaron Rowand (.324, 8 HR, 38 RBI) and Milton Bradley (.338, 14 HR, 45 RBI). Rowand — and stop me if this sounds familiar — was a high-potential player whose progress was often derailed by injury. While this sounds like the textbook definition of a Nationals’ player, the team already has about eight guys that fit that mold. Did Washington really need to shell out $60 million over five years to land another?

As for Bradley, if the Nationals had managed to bring in Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Bradley in the same offseason, someone would have certainly opined that Washington would need to reconvene the Manhattan Project to contain the kind of fireworks that combo would create.

Milledge and Dukes have not had any attitude problems this season, though they have had their fair share of struggles at the plate. And you know what? I’m kind of okay with that. Yes, I’m aware that Ryan Church and Brian Schneider are off to great starts in New York, but this wasn’t a trade that was made for this season, but rather two or three years down the road. By then, some of the Nats’ farmhands will have matured. By then, free agent signings won’t equate to spending $10 million for a sympathy hug of 10 more wins.

True, there’s a beautiful new stadium in Southeast D.C. and it is partially going to waste. But if you are going to stink, do it now, when the lack of fans isn’t going to affect the fledgling entertainment district that should take root in the ballpark’s neighborhood in the next few years. Whether attendance is 38,000 or 7,000, no fan is going to patronize the concrete-mixing site that borders the Anacostia River and the park’s first base entrance.

If the Lerner family isn’t sinking money into free agents in two years, then I will have a problem. Until that time, I’m just not sure inking a guy like Sheets (a poster-child for injury-prone players with sky-high potential) or Hudson (a career .279 hitter) is going to change too much.

Nats fans may be sad about the sorry state of their team today, but they should be savvy enough to realize that when your team has the fourth worst winning percentage in the majors, is tied for the second fewest runs scored and seventh most runs allowed, there’s no such thing as a fast free agent fix.