These Nats should fly
Now that Washington's new franchise has a name, does it have a chance?
Did Strom Thurmond know how to hide windfalls for his constituents in an appropriation bill?
You better believe he did. And you had better believe that the Nationals are going to blossom into a model franchise in a lot less time than it took expansion success stories like the Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays.
Here are the top five reasons why:
1. This is no expansion franchise.
While the Expos have had a losing record in six of their last eight seasons, they are capable of contending soon in a division that has been ruled by the Atlanta Braves since another George Bush was in the White House.
It's true that their roster isn't what it was a couple years ago, when they had Vladimir Guerrero, Javier Vazquez, Bartolo Colon and Orlando Cabrera, but they have arguably the best second baseman in the majors in Jose Vidro. He's the one potential free agent Omar Minaya was able to sign to a contract extension and gives new GM Jim Bowden a perennial All-Star to build around.
Bowden has already made two good signings, getting Vinny Castilla to play third base -- before you call him a product of Coors Field, consider he's also had very productive seasons in Houston and Atlanta -- and Cristian Guzman to be the regular shortstop. The word is he still has his eye on Barry Larkin as a possible super-sub.
The Expos' farm system was weakened by the three seasons under Major League Baseball ownership but has still accrued some impressive players through the draft -- young closer Chad Cordero and prospects like Mike Hinckley, a left-hander who could make the '05 rotation, and first baseman Larry Broadway. Several players acquired by Minaya in trades, including potential closer Francis Beltran and third baseman-second baseman Brendan Harris (from the Cubs in the four-team deal that sent Cabrera to Boston) and outfielder Ryan Church (from Cleveland for Scott Stewart) and right-hander Jon Rauch (from the White Sox for Carl Everett), are on the cusp of establishing themselves.
2. This is an era of much greater opportunities for all franchises.
The franchise that fled Washington under owner Bob Short's direction after 1971 was an expansion franchise, brought into existence when the Griffith family moved the original Senators to Minneapolis after 1960. The team Short was handed never once contended for a playoff spot, compiling a record of 292 games below .500 in 11 seasons before bolting. They finished in the cellar five times and never finished higher than fourth, which they did in 1969, the first season of divisional play.
Frank Howard led the Senators to 86 wins that year, but they still finished 23 games behind first-place Baltimore. It wasn't a close enough call to convince anyone they were going to be a factor, and indeed they plunged back to last place in 1970 and '71 before relocating to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
While baseball has increased from 24 to 30 franchises in the years since then, it has also doubled the playoff field, splitting the two leagues into three divisions and adding wild-card spots. This format creates a much greater chance that an ambitious franchise can seriously compete, building interest and credibility, which was the one quality that the old Senators badly lacked under Short.
3. These are not your father's Orioles.
There is still room to argue whether the Washington-Baltimore area is populated enough to support become MLB's fourth two franchise territory. But there is no way to argue that the timing is about as good as it gets to launch a team in D.C.
No one knows that better than Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who is negotiating assurances that his franchise will retain enough revenue to compete. But Angelos does not deserve much sympathy. He took over one of baseball's best franchises after the death of Edward Bennett Williams and has managed to alienate some of baseball's most loyal fans.
Short didn't stand a chance competing against the Orioles. That team remains the model of success built around pitching-and-defense, going to the World Series four times between 1966 and '71 behind pitchers like Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar and Gold Glovers Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Paul Blair.
Fans in the metropolitan area followed the Orioles at the expense of the Senators. Short's radio-TV package netted him only about 30 percent as much as the Orioles, and there was no revenue sharing. Short had purchased the team for $9.4 million and estimates he lost $2.6 million in his last three years in Washington, saying that if he hadn't moved "it could have bankrupted me.''
Under Angelos, the Orioles have had losing records for seven years in a row.
They made a good investment in shortstop Miguel Tejada a year ago but won't pose a threat to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox until they go back to the future with a top-tier pitching staff. That's not likely to happen any time soon.
4. RFK Stadium is just a way station, not a destination.
MLB's financial rebirth in the last decade has largely been the result of its building boom. The Nationals' new owners -- most likely the group headed by Frank Malek -- will take over with a baseball-only palace in the works. Even better, it will be built largely with public funds, provided the ongoing flap about potential cost overruns at a downtown location don't prove to be more than a minor speed bump.
Like the Washington Redskins' stadium, a new baseball stadium will be built with high-end ticket-buyers in mind. It will be state-of-the-art in terms of stadium boxes, club seating and other perks, all providing revenue for ownership. That revenue will fuel the free-agent spending by Bowden.
While the 2005 Nationals are expected to operate with a payroll in the range of $55-60 million, it won't be a surprise if they follow the examples of Jerry Colangelo and Arte Moreno and increase that by 50 percent or more for 2006, creating an instant contender.
5. There's nothing George W. Bush likes better than baseball, including the voters in Florida and Ohio.
Look for the Bush administration to have a visible presence at RFK in upcoming summers. Ditto other politicians, who will vie to see who can become the Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon of the new franchise.
While a John Kerry team elected on populist appeal might have wanted to keep the new baseball franchise at arms length, Bush will do his best to attend as many games as possible, inviting old pals like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens to attend games.
This guarantees that no end of dot-dot-dot notes for Larry King and other gossip columnists. The Bush presidency will be a good thing for the new franchise.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.
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