- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006

I walked into the giant warehouse structure, past the dancing Santas and the boxes of “The Honeymooners: the Lost Episodes” and searched for the first thing on my shopping list. When I couldn’t find it, I stopped a clerk for help.

“Where do you keep the middle relievers?” I asked.

“What?” he answered, looking confused.

“You know, the middle relievers. I need a couple of them first, then some outfielders,” I said.

“Sir, we don’t stock middle relievers or outfielders here,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Isn’t this Stan’s Club?”

“No, sir, this is Sam’s Club,” he said in an exasperated tone.

“Sorry, I thought it was Stan’s Club,” I answered, sheepishly.

You see, I read where the Washington Nationals had signed 21 minor league free agents, so I figured team president Stan Kasten had opened up some sort of discount warehouse for ballplayers. But it turns out that Stan’s Club is keeping these 21 minor league free agents for “added depth to both their 40-man roster and minor league system.”

And, of course, as we know, based on the first two years of this franchise, there is a good chance that Mike Bacsik and Joe Thurston and Darnell McDonald or any number of Stan’s Club players will wind up at RFK Stadium at some point during the season.

It’s not unusual for teams to signs such minor league free agents. It is just that it was kind of humorous the way it emerged from the cloak of secrecy surrounding the offices at the ballpark concerning the managerial search.

They called in a group of writers two weeks ago for a meeting whose purpose seemed to be, “We’re not as dumb as we look.” I agree.

They hired 10 new scouts, and are on the right track investing in player development. But then why not introduce these 10 scouts to the fans? Why not have some sort of event where fans get to meet and greet the scouts? If player development is your plan, show it off. The geeks and seamheads would love it. Who wouldn’t want to meet Moose Stubing?

The idea of the “Hot Stove League” is to generate interest for your team in the offseason. The way the Nationals operate, it’s more like the “Ice Box League.” Someone asked me the other day if the team was going to hold some sort of Fanfest. I don’t know. Maybe they did already and wanted to keep it a secret.

They should have taken full advantage of these free agent signings and brought all 21 to Washington for a press conference. There may not be too many more free agent signings this winter at Stan’s Club.

Don’t expect to see Alfonso Soriano back in Washington at a Nationals press conference. He is the prize of the free agency market, and could generate as much as $18 million a year for six years, as a number of teams will bid on the services of an outfielder who hit 40 home runs and stole 40 bases in his prime.

Let them. The Nationals can better spend their money, and the teams that are expected to bid for Soriano, such as the Phillies, will be doing so with the intention of him protecting someone like a Ryan Howard. Those numbers he put up in Washington were as a leadoff man. No one knows for sure yet if he is a protector, and for $100 million, you might want to be sure that he can do it.

Still, since he appears to be the best position player available — Carlos Lee is supposed to be so large now he counts as two players — there won’t be any shortage of bidders for Soriano. How many may depend on whether superstars like Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Miguel Tejada are on the trading block (Gary Sheffield was moved yesterday to Detroit). If they are, it could cut down on the number of teams that can afford Soriano’s services.

But if none of them are moved, and if a team wants to make an impact on its offense, it will be calling on Soriano. The two most persistent callers are expected will be the Angels and the Dodgers, as Soriano could wind up being in the middle of the battle between those two teams for Southern California. The Dodgers made it a fight again by making the postseason this year, and Angels owner Arte Moreno won’t let another year pass without doing all he can to put his team back there as well.

Back here in Washington, fans will just have to be patient and have faith as the plan unfolds. That’s the price to be a member of Stan’s Club.

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