Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: Don’t Be Scrooges




After 102 losses, Washington, D.C.’s long Nationals nightmare is over.

With the end of the baseball season last Sunday, the District’s baseball fans will no longer have to avert their gaze from the team that racked up baseball’s worst record in 2008. Problem is, it turns out there will be a season in 2009.

If the Nats don’t want to stare down the century mark in the loss column for a second consecutive season, it’s going to take a whole lot of cabbage. And I’m not talking about infusions from the team’s farm system.

While some of the youth movement has blossomed with Zimmerman and John Lannan, the top draft picks and prospects the team was trusting to have an impact have developed more slowly than anticipated. With few prospects ready to make a major league leap, the Nats will have to turn to free agency. In theory, with a so-far small payroll and the income generated by the new city-funded stadium, the team’s coffers should be flushed with cash. Even with attendance falling short of expectations in the first year of Nationals Park, Washington should be in prime position to chase after a particularly robust free agent class that includes Manny Ramirez, Bobby Abreu and Ben Sheets.

Recent history, however, suggest the team’s owners, the Lerner family, are unwilling to spend on any significant free agent upgrades. Last off-season, it was reported the team would up its payroll from $36 million to $70 million or so. Instead, it increased about $14 million with mostly busts like Paul LoDuca and Johnny Estrada brought in through short-term free agent deals. Now comes Monday’s report in the Washington Post that team president Stan Kasten is unhappy with the Lerner family and is considering leaving because of the padlock they have placed on the team’s purse.

This is important, so I’ll make it simple. If there are no significant free agent acquisitions this off-season, the franchise and its ownership will invoke some serious ire.

The District paid for the stadium. The fans, an average of 29,005 every night, paid for the more expensive seats inside of it. Unless the Lerners, who are refusing the pay $3.5 million in rent because the stadium wasn’t technically completed on time, want to embrace the image of Ebeneezer Scrooge, it’s time for a little quid pro quo. And it needs to happen now, before things get any worse.

The Nats’ attendance this year was the lowest ever for the first season of a new stadium. The television ratings required an electron microscope to read. While many factors, including a diminished economy, contributed to those dubious honors, there are 102 reasons that head my list. No one in this town wants to back a loser.

If there’s one thing Washington should have learned last year, it’s that success on the playing surface breeds success at the gate. In November, with the team struggling to an abysmal 8-15-1 start, Washington Capitals tickets could hardly be given away. As the team turned itself around and eventually completed its remarkable run to the Southeast Division crown, the Caps became one of the hottest attractions in town, with seven sellouts to end the season. The same held true a few years earlier for Georgetown basketball, where fans were few and far between before John Thompson III’s troops bested the Duke Blue Devils and officially announced the program’s resurgence.

Without a serious infusion of cash, there is little possibility that the Nats will experience a similar improvement. As compensation for its wretched performance in 2008, the Nats will own the top pick in June’s draft. Most likely, that pick will be pitcher Steven Strasburg, and it’s also likely it will require multiple millions above the recommended “slot” price to sign him to a contract. That’s what kept the team from signing first round choice Aaron Crow this year. Will they cough up the cash this time?

On the free agent market, the team could pursue players like A.J. Burnett or Mark Teixeira, both of whom have ties to the region and could drastically bolster the team’s chances of success … for a price. A lineup topped by Cristian Guzman (.316), Milledge (14 HR in 138 games), Ryan Zimmerman (14 HR in 103 games) and Teixeira would sound pretty good, no? Something to get excited about?

But to bring in talent of that caliber, the Nats are going to have to convince these players that this team is not just spinning its wheels while its depleted farm system takes root. To do that, it will take money. Lots of money. But the longer the team waits, the more convincing players (and fans) will need that the Nats are worth their time.

If that’s an investment the Lerners aren’t prepared to make this off-season, they’re going to lose a lot more than baseball games in 2009.