Nats have uncertain pitches for free agents

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In a perfect world, the Washington Nationals would open their checkbook tomorrow — the first day clubs are allowed to sign free agents — and start handing out contracts to any number of highly coveted players about to hit the market.

By now, though, Nationals fans know their team resides in a world far-removed from perfection.

So it was yesterday the Nationals learned from MLB commissioner Bud Selig they will not be sold to a new owner in the next two weeks, while at the same time general manager Jim Bowden was interviewing for the Boston Red Sox’s more attractive opening.

All of which leaves Washington in an all too familiar position: stuck in neutral while the rest of the baseball world shifts into high gear.

Instead of preparing legitimate contract offers for the likes of A.J. Burnett, Jarrod Washburn, Juan Encarnacion and others, the Nationals are left trying to figure out how much money they’re even allowed to spend on players.

For now, Bowden is working with a budget of about $60 million, slightly more than the club devoted to payroll at the end of last season but significantly less than a new owner might be willing to spend.

That means the Nationals are hamstrung as an already thin free agent market opens tomorrow. Not only must they limit who they can pursue, but they also face the likelihood of scaring off potential targets because of their own unstable situation.

One agent for a prominent player about to hit the market said yesterday he’s reluctant to have his client sign with the Nationals while ownership remains up in the air.

“We’re going out into a marketplace with clubs that have ownership in place, that realize who they want to go after and what budget they have,” the agent said. “You can’t sit there and say the same about Washington. Who wants to go to an organization that doesn’t know who’s going to be running the team?”

That’s the kind of tough sell Bowden will be making to free agents from around the league. Even though he spent an hour and a half yesterday interviewing with Red Sox president Larry Lucchino and chairman Tom Werner at the GM meetings in Indian Wells, Calif., he also continues to work on improving Washington’s roster.

Bowden’s major goals have not changed. He still covets two starting pitchers, a left-handed reliever, a leadoff man, a middle-of-the-order hitter and a backup catcher, in that order.

He already has held preliminary discussions with the agent for Burnett, perhaps this winter’s biggest pitching prize, who easily could command a four-year deal worth more than $40 million. Other starting pitcher targets include Washburn, Kevin Millwood, Jeff Weaver, Matt Morris and perhaps Kenny Rogers.

For the bullpen, Bowden pines for B.J. Ryan, but given the heavy demand for the Orioles left-hander, San Francisco’s Scott Eyre seems a more likely option.

There are no real leadoff men available on the open market, but Bowden may pursue a trade for either the Marlins’ Juan Pierre or the Padres’ Dave Roberts.

Encarnacion, the Florida outfielder who nearly came to Washington in a trade last summer, and Minnesota’s Jacque Jones are potential middle-of-the-order hitters on the Nationals’ radar screen. Veteran catcher Todd Pratt is the top backup available to replace Gary Bennett.

And what of Washington’s own free agents, most notably pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco? The chances of re-signing either appear to be dwindling with each passing day.

Bowden met with Tom Reich, Carrasco’s agent, on Tuesday. Coming off a spectacular season as both a reliever and a late-season emergency starter, the veteran right-hander is going to be seeking a multiyear deal, and it’s debatable whether the Nationals will devote a sizeable amount of their limited budget to a pitcher who turns 36 later this month.

Washington has even more ground to make up with Loaiza, who after winning 12 games with a 3.77 ERA last season is seeking a three-year contract in the range of $20 million. The Nationals have come nowhere close to matching those demands, and agent John Boggs is ready to take his client elsewhere.

“Esteban would have liked to return to Washington,” Boggs said. “They just haven’t developed an offer that’s anywhere near competitive to what we think we’re going to find in the free agent market. … Come Friday, all bets are off.”

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