- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

That the Washington Nationals went into the 2008 season with a team payroll around $55 million wasn’t terribly shocking. The front office had said all along it wasn’t going to shell out big bucks for top-name free agents despite moving into the new ballpark.

That the Nationals spent their $55 million so poorly, though, was a major disappointment.

Consider how much this organization paid to players who have either underperformed, are hurt or are no longer with the franchise. It’s a staggering total.

The 25-man roster that was active for Sunday’s series finale against the Cincinnati Reds had a total payroll of about $23 million ($9.2 million of that alone to shortstop Cristian Guzman and right fielder Austin Kearns).

Another $14 million is being paid to players on the disabled list ($10.5 million of that to first basemen Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young).

And - here’s the kicker - the Nationals are spending $13.5 million on five players who have been unconditionally released: Paul Lo Duca, Felipe Lopez, Johnny Estrada, Rob Mackowiak and Ray King.

Do the math. That’s $27.5 million being given to players who either are injured or no longer with the organization, more than is being paid to the 25 guys who are on the field at the moment.

Now, the Nationals can’t be blamed for getting hit with the injury bug worse than any team in baseball. That’s not their fault. But the decisions to sign Lo Duca, Estrada, Mackowiak and King as free agents were complete busts. (Lopez was in his final season of arbitration.)

But it’s too late to correct those mistakes. What’s done is done, and the Nationals can’t take back the money they gave those players (much as the Lerner family probably would like to).

The larger question is whether the organization will spend its money more wisely in 2009 than it did in 2008 because there’s going to be another opportunity this winter.

As things stand, Washington has only six players signed for next season: Guzman, Kearns, Johnson, Young, Ronnie Belliard and ostensibly Wily Mo Pena (who has a $2 million player option he would be foolish not to exercise). Combined, those six players will make $30.4 million in 2009.

There are other arbitration-eligible players like Ryan Zimmerman who will add to that total, but the fact remains that the Nationals will have money to spend on free agents even if they don’t increase their overall payroll.

So what do they do? Offer a repeat performance of last winter and sign four or five moderately priced veterans who either could prove valuable or turn into the next version of Lo Duca? Or sign a big-name player who eats up a large chunk of payroll and is locked up for multiple seasons?

Fans have made it clear they would prefer the big name. Management has made it clear that never has been its intention, certainly not while the organization remains in a rebuilding mode.

Perhaps the wisest course of action actually would have the Nationals not signing anyone of consequence, sticking with young players and saving that money for the day this franchise is truly ready to contend. It wouldn’t be greeted with much applause from a fan base that has grown tired of losing and promises that things are going to get better. But from purely baseball and financial perspectives, it might make the most sense.

Your Opening Day 2009 Nationals, featuring a $45 million payroll? Say it ain’t so.

It probably won’t be. The front office knows what fan (and media) backlash would be over that.

But if the Nationals are going to spend some money in 2009, fans better hope they learned from their mistakes in 2008.

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