- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — For all the excitement, the 1.8 million tickets sold and the prospect of even more revenue to come, the Washington Nationals still look more like a “small-market” franchise entering the 2005 season than one trying to take the baseball world by storm.

Because they are still owned by Major League Baseball, which has enforced strict budgetary guidelines until the club is sold, the Nationals will head into Opening Day with a payroll around $47 million.

Though that figure represents a significant increase from the franchise’s final days in Montreal, it remains the smallest by far in the highly competitive NL East.

The Nationals’ four division rivals — the Atlanta Braves, Florida Marlins, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies — all spent lavishly this winter to revamp their rosters, and each will open the season with a payroll that dwarfs Washington’s.

The Marlins, at $65 million, are somewhat within the Nationals’ neighborhood. The Braves ($80 million), Phillies ($96 million) and Mets ($105 million) aren’t even in the same galaxy.

In fact, only two NL clubs — the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates — are expected to have smaller payrolls than the Nationals this year. Which begs the question: Can Washington baseball fans reasonably expect their new club to be any more competitive in 2005 than it was the last three years in Montreal?

“Certainly they don’t have any expectations that we’re going to compete with teams whose payrolls are twice what ours is,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “Are they expecting to win as many games as the Braves? No. And they shouldn’t. But they are going to be watching an improved team from last year, a team that’s growing and being built from the bottom up.

“It’s going to be a team that they’re going to have a fun time watching.”

Bowden, upon taking the Nationals job on an interim basis in November, was given a $50 million budget by club president Tony Tavares, who was given that figure by MLB. It was $12 million more than former Expos general manager Omar Minaya had to spend on player salaries at the end of last season.

That was when MLB still had visions of selling the franchise in time for Opening Day, a goal that has no chance of being met. League officials have since targeted midsummer for a new ownership group to be in place, though few would be surprised if the process drags on even longer than that.

So what are the Nationals to do if, come July, they are still in a pennant race and wish to add another veteran bat or arm for the stretch run?

The Expos found themselves in just that scenario in 2002 and were told by MLB they could not add payroll. Minaya still managed to trade for the likes of Bartolo Colon and Cliff Floyd without spending any more money, but the moves weren’t enough to push the club into the postseason.

A year later, the Expos again were in the thick of the NL wild-card race yet were constrained to their predetermined budget, which was so tight the club was forbidden from making routine September call-ups.

Nationals officials want to believe the situation would be different this year, but no one knows for certain whether MLB would green-light a midseason payroll increase.

“Would I be in a position to pick up the phone and try to get more money? The answer is yes,” Tavares said. “But I don’t know what the outcome would be. It depends on how much support we’re getting in the marketplace, how much money we’re generating and how close we are to the sale process.”

As much as Bowden would like to be given more money to build his team, he’s going under the assumption it’s not going to happen.

“If there’s any time that Mr. Tavares or Major League Baseball wants to change that budget based on revenues, then I’ll adjust accordingly,” he said. “But in the meantime, I’ve been told our budget is $50 million for this year, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Despite their small-market budget, Nationals officials overwhelmingly believe they have put together a talented team that can be competitive this year, one that is without a doubt improved from last season’s 95-loss squad.

Whether that’s good enough to compete with the Braves, Marlins, Mets and Phillies remains to be seen.

“Payroll does not always equate to the quality of the team,” Tavares said. “Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Our belief is the team will be competitive. We lack, more than anything else, depth. But our starting nine, I’ll put up against anybody in this division pretty much.”

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