- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2009

The Washington Nationals missed a golden opportunity on the free agent market - they let Eddie Guardado get away.

Guardado is the Texas Rangers reliever who nearly had a heart attack last season when his team played a trick on him: They told him he had been traded to the Nationals.

And there he was in the offseason, on the free agent market, ready to be had. But the Rangers signed Guardado to a minor league deal Tuesday.

Signing Guardado would have been nice comic relief for the Nationals, who might as well roll with their reputation as the laughingstocks of baseball.

Here it is, a week before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, and the Nationals essentially have the same team that finished with 102 losses last year. The only notable changes are the addition of three average-at-best players: pitchers Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera and outfielder Josh Willingham.

Sorry, I forgot: They recently signed two free agents, shortstop Alex Cintron and catcher Javier Valentin, to minor league contracts. (With this club, I’m not sure how that differs from a major league contract.)

Valentin is another former Cincinnati Reds player - former Reds and current Nationals general manager Jim Bowden seems intent on running a welfare hotel for Cincinnati rejects and refugees.

One former Reds player, though, would help change the image of the Nationals as baseball’s whoopee cushion: Adam Dunn.

You could make a case for the slugging outfielder/first baseman as the top prize remaining in free agency: He’s only 29, has hit more than 200 home runs and driven in more than 500 runs in the past five seasons and carries less baggage than the other big prize out there, Manny Ramirez.

But Ramirez nevertheless is considered the big-ticket item - at least he and his agent, Scott Boras, think so. The Los Angeles Dodgers reportedly offered Ramirez a one-year deal worth $25 million, and Boras termed the offer as playing a game of “chicken.”

The thinking is that once Ramirez goes, the rest of the free agent market, including Dunn, will follow.

So it is possible that Dunn - referred to in code by Nationals officials as “a big left-handed bat in the middle of the lineup” - still could wind up in Washington. An ESPN report by Jayson Stark last week said Dunn would prefer to land with the Dodgers. The report quotes an official - from another team that is interested in Dunn - as saying, “If he wanted to be in Washington, he’d already be there.”

But that’s the opposite of what Dunn has been telling his Nationals friends. He has been saying he wants to come to Washington. But then, we don’t know whether the Lerner family is offering Dunn much more than free eats at Ben’s Chili Bowl.

The Dodgers may pull out of this game of chicken with Ramirez and decide Dunn indeed would be a better option. In that event, there would be little left on the market to fill the need for “a big left-handed bat in the middle of the lineup” - and to stop players like “Everyday Eddie” from recoiling in fear at the notion of playing for the Nationals.

The team would have to come up with another plan to keep its dwindling attendance from falling to 2 million in Nationals Park’s second season. The club drew only 2.3 million in the park’s inaugural season, the lowest figure for any new stadium in the Camden Yards era.

The club already is expanding the Red Loft, and I don’t know whether there are enough liquor licenses in the District for any more bars in the ballpark. So the club may have to turn to the Racing Presidents to draw people to the ballpark this season: They may have to add a Racing Obama.

President Barack Obama likely will throw out the first pitch for the Nationals’ home opener April 13 against the Phillies, which pretty much guarantees a sellout. But unless they can persuade him to stop by on a regular basis, the Nationals should offer the next best thing: Add Obama to the foursome of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

No Adam Dunn. No Eddie Guardado. No Racing Obama.

No fans.