DALLAS — As far as the rest of baseball is concerned, the Washington Nationals are not playing in the same league as everyone else. The lack of ownership, coupled with all other kinds of uncertainty, leaves the Nationals on the outside looking in at the annual winter meetings that opened yesterday at the Wyndham Anatole hotel.
The Nationals themselves, however, do not share that view. Owner or no owner, they believe they are on equal footing with the sport’s 29 other clubs. And to prove that, general manager Jim Bowden yesterday made what he believes is a competitive offer to the top pitcher available on the free agent market, A.J. Burnett.
According to club sources, the Nationals offered Burnett four years and $40 million, a contract that would immediately make the 28-year-old right-hander the highest-paid player on their roster.
“We’re competitive with the other teams out there right now,” Bowden said. “We’re right there with them.”
Whether Washington’s offer really is enough to bring Burnett to RFK Stadium remains to be seen. Agent Darek Braunecker had at least two other offers on the table last night, with the Toronto Blue Jays stepping to the forefront with a five-year deal reportedly worth as much as $55 million.
The St. Louis Cardinals also remained in the running with a reported four-year, $40 million offer.
The Nationals might not be able to match Toronto’s massive dollar figure, but they believe they might not need to. There may be other reasons for Burnett to sign with Washington: Burnett’s wife, Karen, is from Bowie and has expressed a desire to move closer to home.
“I think it’s a factor,” Bowden said. “I think A.J.’s very comfortable with our organization. I think A.J. and his wife geographically like the area. I think it makes sense for them. … I think at the end of the day, he’s got to decide where he wants to go pitch and where he wants to spend the next several years of his life.”
Braunecker did not return messages last night.
The Nationals have long coveted Burnett, who despite his career 49-50 record and 3.73 ERA is regarded as a star-in-waiting. But they were unable to make a concrete offer until Sunday night because they still didn’t know how much money they had to spend.
They still don’t have a firm budget for 2006, but club president Tony Tavares — with approval from Major League Baseball — gave Bowden permission to pursue Burnett and even increase the original offer to its current state.
“Certainly our ownership thing is unique,” Bowden said. “When we have decisions to make, we bring it to Tony. Tony brings it to the people above him. We get approval or nonapproval, and we go forward on a case-by-case basis right now without a sure [final budget] number.”
Washington’s payroll allotment isn’t the only thing still up in the air. Manager Frank Robinson and his coaches still have no contracts for next season, and the club is not ready to make a final decision on them.
That said, Robinson is part of the Nationals’ contingent at the winter meetings and yesterday sat alongside Bowden and other front-office officials as they met with agents, players and rival GMs.
Bowden danced around the subject, insisting Robinson is still his manager but not going far enough to declare it with absolute certainty.
“Everybody’s day-to-day,” he said. “You don’t have anybody with contracts. We’re all doing our job and working hard to try to do what’s best for the Nationals. … Frank has always been the manager of this team. I don’t understand why that would be a question.”
Robinson, who in the past has expressed frustration over his in-limbo situation, yesterday bit his tongue and spoke the company line.
“I understand the situation, let me put it that way,” the 70-year-old skipper said. “And I’m willing to wait until it’s resolved and then see what happens.”
In other Nationals news:
Bowden confirmed he has held trade talks with the Arizona Diamondbacks about pitcher Javier Vazquez and the Florida Marlins about center fielder Juan Pierre.
Vazquez, the former ace of the Montreal Expos, has requested a trade to an East Coast club but will be hard to land. He’s due to make $24 million over the next two seasons ($6 million of which is still to be paid by the New York Yankees), though the Diamondbacks would be willing to take on some of that salary depending on the players they would get in return. Washington shot down Arizona’s initial offer.
Pierre, meanwhile, appears to be the next victim of the Marlins’ fire sale, and he also has many suitors.
“We’ve had discussions with the Marlins about Juan Pierre,” Bowden said. “But again, we’re in a marketplace that’s very competitive, both in dollars and players.”
The Nationals are actively looking for a backup catcher to replace free agent Gary Bennett and are believed to be courting veteran Todd Pratt, with John Flaherty as a fallback option.
Four Washington players have signed on to represent their home countries in this spring’s inaugural World Baseball Classic: pitcher Chad Cordero and catcher Brian Schneider for the United States, second baseman Jose Vidro for Puerto Rico and reliever Luis Ayala for Mexico.
Vidro and Ayala are coming off injuries, though, and Bowden said he has reservations about letting them play in the tournament.
“I have serious concerns,” he said. “If they’re 100 percent healthy, I support the players playing. But we have to make sure our players are 100 percent healthy if they’re going to participate.”