Baseball: The Nationals & How Not to Run a Team

by Phil Kehres*
Special to iVoryTowerz

The worst team in baseball just got better. Well, a little bit better.

By trading second basemen Emilio Bonifacio with prospects to the spendthrift Florida Marlins for pitcher Scott Olsen and outfielder Josh Willingham, the Washington Nationals are taking a step in the right direction. Perhaps watching the Tampa Bay Rays’ worst-to-first season opened some eyes in D.C.

Some small-market teams — like the Rays, the Oakland A’s and the Cleveland Indians — have figured out how to compete on a tight budget. Their success proves you don’t need the riches of New York, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles to compete. Other little guys, like the Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates, have thus far doomed themselves to failure through a series of poor management decisions.

If you can’t spend with the big guys, you have to outthink them. The key to fielding a successful small-market baseball team is maximizing potential value while minimizing risk. That’s why teams like Cleveland often don’t keep fan favorites like C.C. Sabathia. A pitcher of his caliber in his prime will command $20 million-plus per year and, perhaps more importantly, a five-plus year contract. When a team operates with a yearly budget under $80 million, it can’t afford for one player to account for a fourth of its payroll. This is especially true of pitchers, who tend to be the most volatile and injury-prone players. Shrewd front offices around baseball have realized that there are two major ways to maximize their assets: prudent trades and low-risk, high-potential signings.

The Sabathia trade of 2008 is a shining example of the first strategy. Aware they wouldn’t be able to afford him, the Indians traded Sabathia mid-year when his value was highest and his services were highly coveted. They received a promising haul of youngsters, including franchise building blocks Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley. Tampa Bay signed rising superstar third baseman Evan Longoria to a nine-year contract early in the 2008 season. It is the largest contract of its kind in baseball history, but it minimizes risk by allowing the Rays to control him for a relatively low cost during what should be the best years of his career. And it’s already paying dividends, if Longoria’s 2008 Rookie of the Year award is any indication.

In stark contrast, the Nationals dropped the ball on trading superstar Alfonso Soriano in 2006. Instead, Soriano signed a beefy contract with the Chicago Cubs and left the Nats empty-handed. Other idiot moves include signed aging, has-been first baseman Dimitri Young and mediocre, never-was second baseman Ronnie Belliard to two-year extensions in 2007 rather than selling high on both. Young sat out most of the 2008 season and Belliard bounced around the infield while playing only 96 games. Neither will contribute anything significant to the Nats’ future.

That’s what makes the Bonifacio trade meaningful. Josh Willingham is not exactly young at 29, and Scott Olsen’s stats are nothing to write home about. Both are due to hit salary arbitration this year, which basically means they may be entitled to higher salaries. This was one of the big reasons the Marlins traded them. However, Willingham’s decent power should be a welcome addition to the Nats’ anemic lineup. Olsen is 24 and has three full years of major league experience; he’s already a solid starter and has the potential to be a rock in the rotation. This is no blockbuster trade, but the Nationals have shown a willingness to look to the future rather than pretending they can contend by signing washed-up, big-name free agents. By trading Bonifacio, who many Nats fans saw as the second baseman of the future, D.C. seems to be acknowledging the need to play by different rules if they want to compete. A few more shrewd moves like this and they may be in danger of making something of their erstwhile squalid existence.

(For more on off-season baseball, please see: "Baseball: The Dark Days of the Off-Season.")

*Phil Kehres is one of the authors of Excuse Me, Is That Your Blog?

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