Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Washington Nationals had their first-ever hot-stove luncheon Friday at Nationals Park.

“Hot stove” - the term given to the period of offseason talent movement in baseball - is too strong a phrase to describe the Nationals’ moves so far.

“Hot plate” is more like it. And not just any hot plate, but the old, worn-out hot plate used by Elwood Blues in his fleabag Chicago hotel to heat up dry white toast.

The crowd that filled up the conference room certainly wanted the stove heated up. Most of the questions, in one form or another, were about what the Nationals were doing to improve upon the 102-loss season that ticket holders were treated to last year.

Some of those questions included mention of outfielder/first baseman Adam Dunn - his management code name at the luncheon was “big bat in the middle of the lineup.”

General manager Jim Bowden was careful not to be too specific in his answers about Dunn and another free agent prize on the market, second baseman Orlando Hudson.

“We are looking at every free agent,” Bowden said. “Any way we can improve the team, we will take a look at that.”

But when asked by the host of the panel that took questions - “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory, a Nationals season-ticket holder - what the team’s needs were for the 2009 season, Bowden said, “The No. 1 need is a left-handed, big bat in the middle of the lineup.”

Speaking with reporters after the luncheon, Bowden said, “If we want to allocate our dollars right now, we would like to have a big bat in the middle of the lineup that hits left-handed and one or two more starting pitchers that can help get us to where we want to get to quicker.”

And when a little kid stood up in the luncheon and asked when the team will find a healthy first baseman, Bowden jokingly answered, “Mr. [Stan] Kasten has my choice in a sealed envelope.”

The winner, of course, is Mr. Left-Handed Big Bat in the Middle of the Lineup himself, Dunn.

Bowden drafted Dunn during his time as general manager in Cincinnati. He made clear from the time he took the Nationals’ job in the fall of 2004 that his want-list trifecta would be Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Pena and Dunn - all his prizes from the Reds.

He has Kearns and Pena, and we know how poorly that turned out - particularly with Kearns, a .217 hitter last year in 330 at-bats who will make nearly $9 million this season. When his contract is up after this year, Kearns will have cost the club about $17 million, with not much to show for all that money.

Dunn, though, is a different case. There are questions about his work habits, but Dunn has an indisputable body of work on the field: five straight seasons of at least 40 home runs and at least 100 RBI.

And given the state of the economy, Dunn may be had for just a little more than what the Nats will have to pay his buddy Kearns this season.

Nearly 100 free agents still are on the market just three weeks before spring training begins, and panic is likely to set in soon among those players who had visions of grandeur. They may have to settle for less.

This could be the year of the general manager’s dream - the one-year contract.

The one-year contract means if a club makes a mistake, it is not married to it. It means that you just signed a player for a contract year, which in turn means you are going to get the best the player has because, as soon as he arrives, he is playing for another contract.

That is what the Florida Marlins did in 2003 when they signed Ivan Rodriguez to a one-year, $10 million contract - a deal for which the team was criticized, but also one that helped an otherwise no-name club win the World Series. Rodriguez went on to a big multiyear payday from the Detroit Tigers.

Bowden believes you will see more one-year deals than normal in this market.

“I think so,” he said. “Certainly the economy is being felt by everybody. There are [Mark] Teixeiras and [CC] Sabathias that are special and don’t feel it. Certainly the rest of the market as a whole is feeling it.”

The Nationals stoked the hot stove embers with their pursuit of Teixeira, but it will be a cold summer at Nationals Park if all they have to show for it are newcomers Josh Willingham, Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera - hot plate specials.

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