Thursday, April 12, 2007

If they haven’t figured it out by now, this will be a rough season for Washington Nationals fans. To get through it, they will need grit, determination, perseverance and, unfortunately, money if they come to RFK.

The problem, though, is Washington fans used up a lot of their grit, determination and perseverance in the 34-year wait for baseball to return to the city after the Senators left town.

Fortunately for the Lerners and Stan Kasten, they still have money. The new owners will see less and less of it, though, if the Nationals — off to a 1-7 start before last night’s game against the Atlanta Braves — fulfill the dire predictions of a historically bad season.

It could get so ugly that to bring the fans back next year the Lerner/Kasten ownership might have to offer something more than simply opening the doors to a new ballpark. They might have to make a major offseason statement, an expensive show of good faith to fans who deserve better than what they are getting now.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present that statement: Braves center fielder Andruw Jones. That would go a long, long way to reassuring fans the new owners intend to strike quickly with the new ballpark and put a winner on the field.

Jones, who homered to lead the Braves to an 8-0 win over the Nats on Tuesday and added a three-run shot last night, will be a free agent at the end of the season and by far the biggest prize on the market. He is one of the elite hitters in the game, a player still on the front end of his best years. Jones turns 30 in two weeks and, with 343 career home runs already, easily could pass the 500 mark within five years. He is the best center fielder in baseball, with nine Gold Glove awards.

“I think he is right in the middle of his prime now,” Braves manager Bobby Cox told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution two weeks ago. “I don’t know if he’s going to play 10 more great years, but he certainly can play five more real easy. He’s as good as he’s ever been in the outfield, and he’s probably a better hitter than he’s ever been.”

Jones is a once-in-a-generation player and therefore likely will demand a once-in-a-generation contract, which would seem to go against the grain of the Kasten philosophy about spending large sums of money on players.

The standard will be the eight-year, $136 million contract the Cubs gave former Nationals player Alfonso Soriano. The Nationals weren’t even in the ballpark when it came to resigning Soriano. But Soriano is a good player who had a great year, but a novelty season, batting leadoff. Jones is a great player who bats in the heart of the lineup and can carry it. Imagine how dangerous Ryan Zimmerman would be if Jones were hitting behind him.

Jones has been noncommittal about his future.

“It’s good when you stay with one organization your whole career,” he told the Journal-Constitution. “The way the business has changed, a lot of those things don’t happen anymore. It’s just the way the business is.”

Jones’ agent, Scott Boras, does business by making the top dollar his top one, two and three priorities (see Alex Rodriguez, $252 million, Texas Rangers, 2001). Boras and Kasten, who thinks baseball would be better off without agents, might be like the snake and the mongoose.

But maybe Kasten has enough of a relationship with Jones to have some influence. And maybe Boras for a change will see the bigger picture and the potential for financial and personal success and quality of life for his client.

Boras spoke glowingly about the future of baseball in Washington at the general managers meetings in November 2004.

“The team will have an international element to it, and it will be a raving success,” he said. “I think it will be the darling of the National League. Players and families will want to come to that city.”

One player and his family would do nicely next year.

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