- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

One significant trade in November. One free agent signing in December. And nothing of consequence yet in January.

For a club that vowed to make major improvements after losing 102 games last season, the Washington Nationals have remained quiet this winter.

And with pitchers and catchers due to report to spring training in less than a month, it’s fair to question whether the Nationals’ 2009 roster will look all that different from the 2008 version.

Team officials insist that won’t be the case and expect the hot stove league to heat up in the coming weeks. But how much can be expected of an organization that has so few tangible changes to tout so far this offseason?

The Nationals have acquired only four major league players in the 2 1/2 months since their season finale at Philadelphia. Washington acquired left-hander Scott Olsen and outfielder Josh Willingham in November from the Florida Marlins in a trade that has been applauded. The Nationals signed promising-but-erratic right-hander Daniel Cabrera last month after the Baltimore Orioles gave up on him. And they selected Terrell Young, a right-hander out of the Cincinnati Reds organization, in December’s Rule 5 draft.

Otherwise, Washington’s offseason has consisted of a lot of talk and little to show for it.

The Nationals were in the center of the hot stove spotlight during their pursuit of first baseman Mark Teixeira but retreated to the shadows after the slugger signed an eight-year, $180 million deal with the New York Yankees. The club’s willingness to spend upward of $20 million a season on a premier free agent perhaps boosted its image among a skeptical fan base, but it also may have raised hopes too much.

If the Nationals were willing to spend $20 million this year on Teixeira, doesn’t that mean they’re willing to spend that same $20 million on other free agents? Not necessarily.

Washington’s ownership, which since assuming control of the franchise hasn’t handed out any contracts worth more than $17.5 million in total value, viewed Teixeira as a once-in-a-lifetime player worthy of such a massive deal. The front office doesn’t seem to believe that doling out $20 million among two, three or even four lesser free agents is a worthwhile investment.

In fact, it remains quite possible that the Nationals’ payroll will go down in 2009. After boasting an Opening Day payroll of about $55 million last season - already the fifth lowest in baseball - Washington has committed only about $47 million to salaries for the coming season. (That number could fluctuate based on the final salaries of the team’s three arbitration-eligible players: Olsen, Willingham and Ryan Zimmerman.)

General manager Jim Bowden didn’t return messages Thursday, but the Nationals have made overtures in the last month to several free agents (Adam Dunn, Orlando Hudson, Randy Wolf) in hopes of pulling off a significant signing. The caveat: Those players’ demands probably must drop substantially for Washington to become serious.

The hope among front-office officials is that prices will come down in the next few weeks as spring training approaches and players get desperate for jobs. The Nationals aren’t alone in this line of thinking; the tanking economy and clubs’ unwillingness to shell out large contracts now has left an unusually high number of free agents unemployed late in the offseason.

Until then, Washington is left scrounging the dregs of the market for players willing to sign minor league contracts - former Orioles right-hander Josh Towers was added this week - and trying to drum up interest from potential trade partners.

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