- The Washington Times - Friday, November 24, 2006

There are two words sure to worsen things for Washington Nationals fans already glum over the loss this week of Alfonso Soriano. “Daisuke Matsukata.” He’s the Japanese fireballer on whom the bank-busting Boston Red Sox spent a reported $51.1 million last week just to negotiate a contract in this slim-pickings offseason. The final price tag for the three-year contract agent Scott Boras seeks will end up in the $90 to $100 million range. For a single player. If a deal is reached, it will reorient the market in even greater favor of baseball’s haves, making previously unimaginable multi-year deals even likelier for old and oft-injured players like Orlando Hernandez — who signed for two years and $12 million at age 41 with the New York Mets this week. Meanwhile, the small-market have-nots will be forced to pick over the scraps.

The Nationals are arguably unique in this scheme. They act like a small-market have-not ballclub even though the team’s economic fundamentals do not require it. Washington is a large, wealthy market with a potentially large and devoted fan base — just look at the Redskins — with well-heeled owners. But the Nats’ 2006 payroll of $63.3 million was 11th lowest in Major League Baseball (of 30 clubs total). The small-market Minnesota Twins spent slightly more despite the fact that low ticket sales in recent years have prompted speculation that the club would need to move. Money isn’t everything, of course: The young, energetic Florida Marlins finished seven games ahead of the Nats despite a league-lowest $15 million payroll.

But the point is that our on-field poverty is not preordained like Kansas City’s or Tampa Bay’s. It’s the product of a managerial holding pattern, a wait-and-see approach to baseball which threatens to deflate a significant portion of the city’s enthusiasm for its new ballclub.

As the market shakes out following big signings by the big-money Red Sox, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs and the remaining top 10, the Nats will almost certainly find themselves forced to pony up more money than last year, or else be even less competitive in the Matsukata era than last year’s dead-last 71-91 finish. Incoming Nats Manager Manny Acta has his work cut out for him.

What saves the Nats’ ticket-sale prospects is the high quality of National League Eastern Division baseball, which is set to feature some of the best players in the Majors once again in 2007. The baseball connoisseur continues to be grateful for that.

We realize the eyes of the owners, the Lerner family, are trained on 2008 and after, when the new waterfront stadium opens, when ticket prices can rise steeply and when the money starts to come rolling in. But here’s some unsolicited advice: Why not produce some early buzz? The best course is to spend competitively now. That way, 2008 looks even rosier and more exciting. Just a suggestion from some friendly hardball enthusiasts.

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