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Nationals Insider: Practicing what they preach

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2009

Within 24 hours, Stephen Strasburg is either going to be a rich man or looking for work in the independent leagues. And Ted Lerner is either going to be millions of dollars poorer or a pariah in his own ballpark.

The Strasburg saga has always been about money and, more specifically, about how much money the Lerner family is willing to spend on a 21-year-old pitcher with unlimited potential but zero track record against professional hitters.

There are legitimate arguments on both sides of this one. Scott Boras can claim his client deserves to be paid as much as top international talent upon first arriving in America. And the Nationals can claim no draft pick is worth twice as much as the previously best-paid draft pick.

Even if Strasburg signs, the Lerners still will face the scrutiny of a fan base that increasingly wonders whether they're willing to spend top dollar to field a successful major league club. Getting Strasburg under contract would certainly be a step in the right direction, but it wouldn't complete the journey.

Upon taking control of the franchise in the summer of 2006, the Nationals' ownership group insisted it would operate just like every other "large-market" club. It would compete with everyone in baseball over the best players, coaches and scouts available.

Three years later, some fans still aren't sure whether that promise has been fulfilled. While the Nationals have shown a willingness to sign "Face of the Franchise" Ryan Zimmerman to a $45 million extension, give Adam Dunn $20 million to slug homers for two years and offer (in vain, as it turned out) Mark Teixeira about $200 million to come to the District, no one would call this a "large-market" club right now.

In fact, Washington's Opening Day 2009 payroll of $60.3 million ranked 27th out of 30 organizations. And that figure represented almost a 10 percent increase from the 2008 payroll and a 62 percent increase from 2007.

The Nationals would argue that their overall rebuilding program, with an emphasis on scouting and development, naturally leads to smaller big league payrolls, and that they will start spending once the big league club is ready to compete.

But it has been three years since the ownership change and five years since relocation from Montreal, and fans don't want to hear about rebuilding through scouting and development anymore. The organization has done a pretty good job assembling a core group of players (Zimmerman, Dunn, Jesus Flores, Josh Willingham, Nyjer Morgan, John Lannan, Sean Burnett, perhaps Strasburg) from which to build a contender. Now it's time to start supplementing those core players with some top-dollar veterans.

At this moment, the Nationals have committed only $28.75 million toward next year's roster, spread out among Dunn, Zimmerman, Cristian Guzman and Willie Harris (plus the anticipated $1 million buyout of Austin Kearns' contract). Another $15 million or so will go to nine players who will be arbitration-eligible: Willingham, Burnett, Flores, Mike MacDougal, Scott Olsen, Saul Rivera, Wil Nieves, Jason Bergmann and Matt Chico.

Throw in everyone else making the league minimum, and Washington is staring at a 2010 payroll in the neighborhood of $49 million. That's not a "large-market" payroll.

This is the winter the Nationals need to jump headfirst into the free agent pool. They're going to need to emerge with a veteran starting pitcher, a second baseman and a solid reliever (perhaps a closer). These are significant holes that have led to countless losses this season, and there are no real viable answers waiting on the farm.

At some point, the Nationals need to live up to their promise and operate the franchise the way they said they would three years ago. Plain and simple, you have to spend to win.

Would a Strasburg signing be an encouraging development? Absolutely. But if the Nationals believe that will be enough to appease the fan base, they're in for a surprise.