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Sound investment

- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

From the day he was named the Washington Nationals' team president, Stan Kasten cautioned fans and members of the media about putting too much stock in the team's payroll.

Payroll, Kasten said, is not an accurate reflection of a franchise's attempt to put a winning team on the field. In certain cases, it's more important to invest dollars in scouting and player development than on the major league roster, particularly with a young team that is trying to compete over the long haul.

It's the sensible way to build a team, and it's probably the right way to go in Washington, where the minor league system is undergoing a significant overhaul while the major league team tries to keep things respectable on the field.

Nationals fans should be prepared for more of the same in 2007 because there's little indication Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden are going to dole out big bucks to improve the major league roster. In fact, the team's 2007 payroll could wind up even lower than the $63 million figure it had on Opening Day 2006.

How is that possible? In short, the Nationals have managed to cut back significantly on their long-term financial commitments with only a handful of pricey players under contract beyond this season.

Washington has $22 million invested in five veteran players for 2007: Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson, Brian Schneider, Cristian Guzman and Luis Ayala (the latter two missed all of this season with injuries).

That's not bad considering how much money the club would have been on the hook for if not for a couple of fortuitous breaks. Remember when Bowden offered Jose Guillen four years and $40 million in spring training? Feel free to shudder at the possibility of all that money being flushed down the toilet.

The Nationals also would have owed Livan Hernandez $7 million in 2007 had the Arizona Diamondbacks not taken the big right-hander off their hands last month.

And had Bowden not signed Johnson to a sensible, three-year, $16.5 million deal this spring, the GM might have been forced to dole out a lot more cash next year to the first baseman, who has enjoyed a career season.

There will be other players under the club's control who will get sizable raises through arbitration (Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, Chad Cordero, John Patterson and Ryan Wagner), but those players combined shouldn't make more than $12 million or so in 2007.

In other words, Washington has committed only about $34 million to payroll next season, leaving the franchise in a solid place financially ... which means there should be plenty of money to give to Alfonso Soriano, right?

Don't get too excited just yet.

Yes, it would appear the Nationals have the financial wherewithal to make a legitimate offer to keep Soriano in town, perhaps something in the range of five years and $65 million to $70 million. But that doesn't ensure the newest member of the 40-40 club will be standing in left field April 2 against the Florida Marlins.

The Nationals may be able to pay Soriano big bucks. That doesn't necessarily mean they want to pay him big bucks.

Fifteen million dollars a year is a lot to invest in a player, especially when it may represent as much as one-fourth of a club's total payroll and especially when it may come on a team that looks destined to play sub-.500 ball again before it moves into its new ballpark.

And all of this assumes Soriano wants to return to the District in 2007. Yes, he has had a remarkable season, and yes, he says he's happy here and would like to stay. But he also wants to win, and his agent wants him to enjoy as much financial fruit as his client possibly can get coming off one of the most productive offensive seasons in baseball history.

So Soriano's future in this town remains as murky as it was the day he arrived. The Nationals may have the money to keep him. But as Kasten keeps saying: Don't put too much stock in money.

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