Friday, December 15, 2006

Piece-by-piece, deal-by-deal, the Washington Nationals have transformed themselves over the last six months from a “mid-budget” club of veterans with several burdensome, long-term commitments into a “low-budget” squad of young players with loads of financial flexibility moving forward.

Since purchasing the franchise from Major League Baseball last summer, the Lerner family (under the stewardship of president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden) has overhauled the team’s roster and positioned itself to rebuild for the long haul. In the process, the Nationals have sliced their major league payroll nearly in half, to the point where they are likely to rank among baseball’s lowest-spending teams in 2007.

This week’s trade of Jose Vidro to the Seattle Mariners (which should become official today once Vidro passes a physical) was the latest bold move by Washington’s front office to rid itself of high-priced veterans and open the door for young, inexpensive players to take their spots.

The Nationals are receiving 25-year-old outfielder Chris Snelling and 22-year-old right-hander Emiliano Fruto in exchange for Vidro, 32, but more important to Washington is the fact the Mariners will pay $12 million of the $16 million remaining on Vidro’s contract over the next two seasons.

The Nationals still owe Vidro $1.5 million in 2007 and $2.5 million in 2008, but those figures pale in comparison with the dollars the club will save by trading the veteran second baseman to Seattle.

Combined with the money Washington has saved either by trading or not re-signing Alfonso Soriano, Livan Hernandez, Jose Guillen, Brian Lawrence, Ramon Ortiz and Tony Armas Jr., and the club’s $63 million payroll from Opening Day 2006 could plummet to as little as $36 million by Opening Day 2007.

That figure (which could still change based on the eventual salaries of Washington’s five arbitration-eligible players and other roster moves) would have ranked 28th among baseball’s 30 franchises last year, ahead of only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Florida Marlins. The Nationals had the sport’s 20th-largest payroll in 2006 under MLB’s ownership.

“I don’t know what our payroll’s going to be, because I really don’t think of teams in those terms,” Kasten said. “I think of assets, and acquiring assets, and looking at opportunities to add additional assets. So whatever it is today, I expect it to be more in spring training. And I expect it to probably be more during the season as we have opportunities to add assets that make sense for the long term.”

Still, this wasn’t what most observers expected when the Lerners paid $450 million to purchase the club last summer. Most figured the days of MLB’s tight-fisted budget would be over and the new owners would pour millions of dollars into the Nationals’ roster in an attempt to field a winning squad right away.

But the Lerners and Kasten made it clear from the moment they took over they would not rebuild the major league roster with high-priced free agents and instead would focus their energy and dollars on restocking the franchise’s weak farm system and scouting department.

The end result will be a low-budget major league team in 2007 that appears destined to finish last in the NL East for the fourth straight season but should begin sprouting top young talent in 2008 and beyond, once the club moves into its new Southeast ballpark.

At that point, the Nationals are likely to start spending more money on the major league roster, using their dollars to retain their own burgeoning stars and pursue free agents who can fill in the gaps.

“Everything we do is with that goal in mind,” Kasten said. “First, we want to have the best team we can right now. And ultimately, we want to mold what we have right now into a championship team. So everything we do will be additive toward getting us to that ultimate goal.”

The Nationals should have little trouble finding the resources to do that when the time comes, because they’ve got precious few long-term salary commitments already locked in.

Only four veterans (first baseman Nick Johnson, shortstop Cristian Guzman, catcher Brian Schneider and reliever Luis Ayala) are under contract for 2007, making a combined $14.5 million. The club also is responsible for $1.9 million owed Vidro and infielder Marlon Anderson (who was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in August).

The salary commitments remain low moving ahead. Four players (Johnson, Schneider, Guzman and Vidro) will make a combined $17.1 million in 2008, and only Johnson and Schneider are signed for 2009 at a combined $10.4 million.

No players are currently signed beyond 2009.

Notes — The Nationals announced their spring training schedule, which includes four exhibition games against the Baltimore Orioles in four different cities over three consecutive days at the end of March. Washington, which opens its Grapefruit League slate March 2 against the Dodgers in Vero Beach, Fla., plays its first home game in Viera the following day against the Orioles.

The highlight of the spring schedule, though, comes during the final week, when the Nationals and Orioles head north together in preparation for Opening Day. The geographic rivals will face each other March 29 in split-squad games in both Viera and Columbus, Ohio (home of Washington’s new Class AAA affiliate). They’ll meet again March 30 in Norfolk. (Baltimore’s new Class AAA affiliate), and face once more March 31 at RFK Stadium. The Nationals open the regular season April 2 against the Florida Marlins at RFK. …

Washington came to terms on 2007 contracts with five players yesterday: right-handers Chris Schroder and Chris Booker, left-hander Mike Hinckley, outfielder Kory Casto and catcher Brandon Harper. All will make at or near the new major league minimum of $380,000.

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