- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

Sammy Sosa as a Washington National? Rumors were flying last week to the effect that Nationals Interim General Manager Jim Bowden is trying to land Sosa via trade. We applaud the audacity: Sosa is a world-class hitter and, despite a recent decline in production, would be a huge draw for fans. But the idea begs a question: What kind of team can the Nationals field?

The short answer is, no one really knows yet, certainly not without a real owner for the club. But Bowden’s recent moves suggest something more than an Oakland Athletics-style moneyballer club that pinches pennies and something less than the free-spending New York Mets, who under Omar Minaya’s tenure have broken the bank on Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. The Nationals appear to be pursuing a cautious and short-term bet-hedging strategy: They’ve found competitive players coming off subpar seasons who can be had at cut-rate prices. This week’s signing of Esteban Loaiza illustrates the point. The New York Yankees gobbled Loaiza up after a superb 2003 season in which he was the runner-up for the Cy Young Award. But he was shellacked in the playoffs and disappointed fans in the Bronx despite pitching 180 innings and notching 10 victories during the regular season. Bowden picked him up for less than $3 million — a bargain in these heady days when Martinez gets $53 million over four years. “We have to spend our dollars the best way we can,” he told The Washington Post this week. “If he had that 21-win season in 2004, he’d be getting the kind of money that we can’t afford.”

Bowden’s deals in November and December seem to confirm that logic: He got decent players who weren’t on the Yankees’ and Mets’ short-lists. (In other words: they’re cheaper). Among them are the Anaheim Angels’ Jose Guillen, a promising young star who is famously ill-tempered and thus costs less; Cristian Guzman, another rising star who disappointed the Minnesota Twins with his slow development; and journeyman third baseman Vinny Castilla, who comes cheaply by age and provenance in Colorado’s home run-friendly Coors Field.

Landing Sosa would seem to change all that. Sosa made almost $17 million last year with the Chicago Cubs, more than one-third the Nationals’ entire expected payroll next year. Bowden’s track record on blockbuster deals isn’t so heartening, either: As general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, he broke the bank to land fan favorite Ken Griffey, Jr. just as Griffey’s most productive years were ending. The Reds couldn’t afford many other players after that, and their hopes for competing were dashed.

If the Nationals end up landing Sosa, we’ll be happy to see a world-class slugger take the field at RFK. But if he does, we hope the new ownership’s pockets will be deep enough to avoid the fate that befell Cincinnati if Sosa’s numbers go south.

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