They never really had a choice.
For all of the reasons that people have quoted, including Jim Bowden’s comments in the most recent Nationals Journal posting,Mark Teixeira was the perfect free agent candidate for the Nationals. He addressed virtually every one of the Nationals major needs: he plays a position that the Nats are now desperately trying to fill, he can hit, he’s a local product. The magnitude of his contract dispels (at least partially) the notion that the Lerners are unwilling to spend money on payroll. By making a credible offer to Teixeira, the Nats have helped change the perception of the organization in the eyes of the public and the media – though I would say that there is still a long way to go there.
Only one problem – Teixeira now wears pinstripes.
And what a problem it is. The Nats really needed to sign Teixeira, but for more esoteric reasons than simply the performance of a player on the field.
Bear with me for a moment – I want to perform a mental exercise. Suppose you could wave a magic wand and make two things happen: First, you would make Nick Johnson impervious to injury, and second, make sure he performed at the level he has during his healthy times with the Nats. Would Nick Johnson be all that different from Teixeira?
Not that different. Comparable OBP. Less power. Similar average. Similar fielding. Nick Johnson isn’t Mark Teixeira. But he isn’t bad. An injury-free Nick Johnson (the logical equivalent to a calorie-free cheesecake – nice in principle, but a fantasy) would solve the Nats on-field problems for a quarter of the money. But what the magically-enhanced Nick Johnson doesn’t do is this: He doesn’t have local roots. He doesn’t have star power. He doesn’t send a message to the clubhouse that today is the day to win, not next season. He doesn’t send a message to all of Major League Baseball that the Nationals have come to play, create a baseball dynasty in Washington, compete perennially, and be a force both on the field and in the marketplace.
But nobody else does, even with a magic wand.
There is nothing in the free agent market that the Nats need the way they needed Teixeira. That’s not to say that there are not free agents out there that the Nats might pursue. But the scope of the Nats need is very different with respect to the remaining marketplace. Signing Dunn (or, heaven forbid, Manny) will be a hollow acquisition unless either can be had a fire sale prices. Both have significant flaws and pose problems for the organization in terms of making them fit. And sure, lots of people can make arguments about this player or that one, but again, which of them puts fans in the seats and makes Nationals Park a line of pride on the back of a baseball card? None of the free agents address that issue, and honestly, I believe that is the most important issue that faces the Nats – credibility.
Do you need proof? We only need to look at the pursuit of Teixeira, and how it turned out. Could the Nationals have kept a low profile, as the Yankees did and then swoop in at the last minute? Of course not. The only reason the Nats were even in the running is that they substituted cash for credibility – and apparently Teixeira left some cash on the table in order to play for the Yankees.
Need another example? Free agents don’t walk away from Redskins money, regardless of how poorly they play. And it isn’t like the Yankees tore up the AL East last year. No reputation and no track record equals the Nationals. Fix the reputation and the need for a track record goes away.
If the Nats are significant players in the remaining free agent market, it will be like sending the kids off in a toy store with $20. They’ll spend every penny and have nothing to show for it in a week. On the other hand, not making a significant expenditure will rile the portion of the fan base that has only a one-dimensional view ofÂ player personnel, where payroll is correlated with quality.
So the Nats lost in their quest to land Teixeira. But there was a lot more at stake than the obvious. Fixing the hole on the field will be relatively trivial. Fixing the hole in the baseball world will take time.
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