Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Washington Nationals .
2008 record: 59-102
Finish: Last place in National League East.
2008 opening-day payroll: $55 million
2009 estimated opening-day payroll: Between $50 million and $75 million
If the Nationals are true to their word of wanting to spend money and compete in a division stocked with the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies, a New York Mets team with a payroll north of $100 million and the young-and-loaded Florida Marlins, they certainly are letting the interest accrue in the account from which they draw this cash.
Sure, the free-agent market has slowed to a tectonic crawl, and with spring training less than six weeks away, the game of chicken between teams and agents is bound to intensify soon enough. For a team such as the Nationals that intended to be in contention for impact players, the pressure to do something is deepening, too.
Whether the Nationals can land outfielder Adam Dunn or second baseman Orlando Hudson is a function of how much they're willing to overpay more than pay. Going to a 100-loss team with a mediocre farm system and no discernable pitching staff of which to speak is a Washington Monument-sized leap of faith. The fall is long and hard, and right now, there's nothing to catch you.
So if general manager Jim Bowden wants to complement a pair of savvy moves he made – jumping in on Florida's annual Black Friday sale to steal outfielder Josh Willingham and starter Scott Olsen, then signing pitcher Daniel Cabrera to a low-risk one-year, $2.6 million deal – he'll have to give an extra year or a few extra million dollars to entice the top-end free agents. It's just life.
Not even a $160 million offer was enough for Mark Teixeira, who entered the offseason as Washington's top priority. Teixeira grew up in Maryland and could have become one of the biggest sports figures in the nation's capital. Instead he chose playing fifth wheel in the meat grinder of the New York Yankees, which paid him $180 million (a figure that the Nationals, were they given a chance to match, almost certainly would have).
Now the focus is elsewhere, and the window is closing. The players are available. The money, supposedly, as well. The question hangs, though, as it has all winter and will until a signing spits out over the transaction wire: Who, exactly, is daring enough to take such an unsure leap?
The Nationals' pursuit of Teixeira this offseason was cute. Not like a cuddly animal or sweet baby, either. The Nationals lost more than 100 games last season, couldn't fill their new stadium two games into its existence, drew fewer than 10,000 viewers on TV, were similarly ignored on radio, lost the rights to their first-round pick because they weren't willing to pay him, and will celebrate their greatest moment as a franchise when poor Teddy wins the Presidents Race.
The idea that even a client of Scott Boras' would so devilishly value money that he would look past the Nationals' systemic dysfunction was, for all of its ingenuity, a naïve pursuit. Not only does Washington have far greater concerns than what one player might be able to help – certainly Teixeira could not fix the Nationals' woes – it was a backward approach to proper franchise building.
With few exceptions, success – even for a team like Washington that vows it's ready to spend money – comes from building within and supplementing with free agents. It's not as though Teixeira would have been some magic balm that erased Washington's warts. Starting off with a mid-level free agent, as Teixeira forced the Nationals to do, is best for them.
Because they are a flawed franchise with meddlesome owners, a president whose power has been undercut and a general manager with a propensity for giving out horrible contracts. The Lerner family's squabbles with president Stan Kasten are lesser known than Bowden's deals for Austin Kearns, Dmitri Young and Cristian Guzman. They are just as important.
For a franchise struggling in as many respects as the Nationals do, the same fundamental page is a necessity. Teams don't just come out of doldrums. They build winners by hewing to a plan. Rarely is it quick and easy. Or, least of all, cute.
Next: Los Angeles Angels