- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The Washington Nationals are sort of like a dollar store on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago: While everyone else at the baseball winter meetings is stocking up on Versace and Gucci, the Nats are looking for blue-light specials.

And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the Nats stock up on enough bargains to field something resembling a baseball team at RFK Stadium in 2007.

Nationals president Stan Kasten made clear there will be no big-ticket items under the tree for Washington baseball fans — no Barry Zitos, Jason Schmidts or even Gil Meches, for that matter. That’s good news, though, in some ways.

A team that signs a top-tier free agent this year will overpay and, most likely, will be doing all it can to get out of the contract in a year or two.

Free agency has evolved. It served as the dominant means to put together a team when it began in the late 1970s, but free agency today is used by successful teams to supplement their own player development systems.

No franchise wants to be in the position of the Chicago Cubs, a club so desperate it signed a very good player to an obscene $136 million contract and still won’t be much better than the team that won 66 games last year.

No franchise wants to be in the position of the Boston Red Sox, who spent more than $50 million just to talk to a pitcher who has never thrown in a major league game.

The Nationals don’t want to fall into those traps, to feel it necessary to take on bad contracts. Spending is no measure of success.

The teams with the biggest payrolls don’t win anymore. The Yankees have spent nearly $1 billion since they last won a World Series, and you can bank on it the figure will rise to about $1.3 billion by the end of next season with still with no championship.

All this, however, does not absolve the Nationals of their duty to try to field a competitive team. A commitment to player development doesn’t mean the Nats can’t spend on free agency as long as the club doesn’t hamper its payroll flexibility.

In other words, the club still can sign, say, a Kenny Rogers to a two-year, $16 million contract as the Detroit Tigers did or a Paul Byrd to a two-year, $14 million deal as the Cleveland Indians did.

That is not wasted money. It is a commitment to the fans who will spend their hard-earned money to watch baseball next season, an assurance they won’t be watching a bad Class AAA pitching staff every night as they did for most of the past season.

The Nationals need an entire starting pitching staff. But, for argument’s sake, let’s assume John Patterson returns from surgery and stays healthy. Let’s assume two starters emerge from all the minor league free agents the Nats acquired this winter or from the new young arms they picked up in trades this season. They will be lucky to get two starters out of that bunch, but let’s assume it happens.

That leaves two more spots to fill in the rotation, and somehow, in the middle of all this free agency insanity, the Nationals have to figure out a way to do it. They have to come up with two legitimate major league pitchers so they can face their own fans next season with credibility.

The smart thing to do is to wait until most of the free agency money has been spent and see who is left on the market, but that won’t be easy.

There aren’t many legitimate major league pitching free agents available now. Mediocre ones, .500 pitchers like Ted Lilly, could get as much as $40 million over four years. If the Nats plan to give fans a least a portion of their money’s worth next season, they may have to sign a pitcher or two before the market settles down.

However, there is no indication they plan on doing that.

It turns out the Nationals think they are like the Yankees: A season that doesn’t result in a World Series championship isn’t worth anything. Just being competitive is not a goal, though being competitive in the National League can carry a team a long way.

The St. Louis Cardinals, after all, won 83 regular-season games last season — only 12 more games than the Nats — and went on to win the World Series.

Stan’s Club is selling a plan for the future, which is all well and good. That doesn’t mean, however, the present must be sacrificed — no matter how much the Kasten/Lerner team tries to convince everyone otherwise.

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