- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 2, 2004

The Washington Nationals have about $44million committed toward player salaries for next season, and that number is expected to approach and perhaps surpass $50million by the time interim general manager Jim Bowden is finished reshaping the roster.

The soon to be relocated Montreal Expos, who ended last season with a $38million payroll, already have increased spending significantly during their first two months in Washington.

The Nationals took on more than $11million in 2005 salaries with the acquisitions of outfielder Jose Guillen, shortstop Cristian Guzman, third baseman Vinny Castilla and catcher Gary Bennett — and they don’t appear to be done.

Bowden is in search of a veteran starting pitcher, and with $6million or so still available to spend, he believes he can pursue some of the big names on the free agent market.

“A premium starting pitcher is the Number 1 priority. That’s our goal,” Bowden said. “We may have to be creative some, maybe back-load a contract some, but there are ways we could fit one of those big pitchers in there.”

The Nationals won’t be in the running for the biggest names available, such as Boston’s Pedro Martinez, Florida’s Carl Pavano and Atlanta’s Russ Ortiz. But they do believe they have a shot at some more affordable, second-tier starting pitchers.

Bowden declined to name specific pitchers he’s targeting, but baseball sources said the Nationals have made offers to Atlanta right-hander Jaret Wright and Los Angeles left-hander Odalis Perez in the last week.

Both are in high demand — Wright was offered a three-year, $15million deal by the Seattle Mariners this week, and Perez made $5million last season while posting a 3.25 ERA for the NL West champion Dodgers — though each could see his asking price go down as the market plays out.

“There’s some interesting guys out there,” Bowden said. “I think a lot of agents are holding off because they want Pavano to fall and Pedro to fall. And then they want to see if that creates a bidding war between the teams that lost out on those guys.”

If the Nationals are able to sign what Bowden calls a “premium” starting pitcher, they almost certainly will crack the $50million payroll barrier, a significant milestone for a franchise that operated under a strict budget the last three years in Montreal.

Already the former Expos have a projected payroll greater than last year’s $43million Opening Day total. (The club shed several large contracts during the season and wound up at $38million by September.)

More important to Bowden, though, is that the Nationals have payroll flexibility.

Only five veterans have deals that extend beyond next season: right-hander Livan Hernandez (who will make $8million in 2005), second baseman Jose Vidro ($7million), Guzman ($4.2million), Guillen ($3.5million) and Castilla ($3million). Bennett, who will serve as backup catcher, signed a one-year, $750,000 deal Monday, making the combined 2005 salaries of all of Washington’s veterans $26.45million.

Another six players (outfielder Brad Wilkerson, catcher Brian Schneider, first baseman Nick Johnson and pitchers Tomo Ohka, Tony Armas Jr. and Joey Eischen) are eligible for arbitration and in line for raises this spring. Based on typical arbitration cases, those six should combine to make about $13million next year, though the Nationals could elect not to tender some of their contracts by the Dec.20 deadline.

The remainder of the roster is made up of players who have spent less than three years in the major leagues and thus are under Washington’s control. Those returning low-salary players will sign one-year contracts with small raises this spring, totaling about $4million.

The net result is a $44million payroll, with room to grow before Opening Day, especially if the club continues to generate revenue through ticket sales. (More than 15,000 season tickets already have been sold for games at RFK Stadium.)

A $50 million payroll, though a significant step up for the franchise, would still pale in comparison to baseball’s largest-market clubs. The Yankees dwarfed everyone else by shelling out $183million in salary last year, and three of the Nationals’ rivals in the NL East (New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Braves) are expected to top $80million in 2005.

That said, Washington’s projected payroll wouldn’t rank among the game’s smallest. The Milwaukee Brewers had baseball’s lowest Opening Day payroll last year at $27.5million, and nine other clubs began the season below $50million.

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