Thursday, July 14, 2005

What's at Stake

The principle reason why we are so agitated about the Nationals' moves as the trade deadline nears is that the team has an enormous opportunity to do something that has never been done before.

In a single season the Washington Nationals can go from the major league dungeon to a premier franchise. Last year the Montreal Expos were a joke: no fan base, no marketing opportunities, no revenue, no significant farm system, and, increasingly, no stable of front-line players. The Expos were a franchise that either had to be moved out of Montreal or contracted out of existence.

One year later, the Expos have morphed into the Nationals, and despite having no significant farm system and no players previously thought to be legitimate stars, the Nats are in first place in arguably the most competitive division in baseball. The team has the third best record in the entire league. They are in the 8th largest media market in the country, have the twelfth largest fan base, and have a robust and growing merchandise business. Given that this is their first year in D.C., there is every reason to believe that the Nats' fan base will continue to grow.

But, unfortunately, the team continues to behave like it's still in Montreal. The two recent deals tinker at the margins of a team with real needs. To maintain their status as the team with the third best record in baseball, the Nats need to make major deals to acquire significant talent, the same kind of trades that baseball's premier teams will make. One of those teams--the Atlanta Braves--is hot on the Nats' heels, and unless the team makes major moves the Braves will overtake them.

The team and its front office needs to start acting like the Nationals are a premier franchise. We know there are hurdles--the lack of a real owner, the disproportionate power over the team held by an owner committed to the Nats' destruction, and the lack of a real media contract. But these are the cards the Nats have been dealt, and they have to play with them. The team has tens of millions of dollars to spend on players because it is now a major franchise in a major market. While there are good reasons not to spend all of that money before an owner buys the team, there are still opportunities to acquire premier players who cost a lot of money.

If the teams acts like a premier franchise this season, it can leap into the upper echelon of major league teams in a single season. If it doesn't, it risks squandering much of the good will and opportunity fate has handed to it in its first season in D.C.

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