Friday, October 28, 2005

MASN Acronym Contest!

It's a slow Friday and Capitol Punishment's report on MASN's expansion to Charter cable got me thinking.

MASN is so crappy that it can't possibly really stand for Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. With that in mind, let's have a MASN acronym contest! I'll go first:

Must Avoid Seeing the Nationals
Might Always Suck Nuts
Monster Angelos Screws Nats

Now it's your turn!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Reading the Tea Leaves

The World Series is finally over, lifting the unofficial MLB moratorium on major announcements and presumably freeing up Jerry Reinsdorf's attention once he recovers from the champagne hangover. Buckle up, Nats fans...let the true offseason drama begin!

I have a feeling that we are going to hear about the new owners within the next three weeks. Almost all of the pieces are in place now: the season is over, Reinsdorf is unoccupied with the White Sox and the District is moving ahead with the stadium site even in the absence of a firm lease agreement.

The Nats are already moving ahead with preparations for '06, too. The club announced today that VP and GM Jim "Leatherpants" Bowden has signed a contract extension through April of 2006. This is good news because it allows the team to negotiate with its own free agents and work on possible deals with others. The risk in not retaining Bowden was, of course, a GM search that eclipsed the start of the free agency period, thus crippling the Nats chances of signing coveted players. This decision by Tony Tavares almost certainly means that the Nationals will not end up with Theo Epstein or Josh Byrnes, much to the chagrin of many of my colleagues in the Natosphere.

Bowden took the extension in stride, immediately appointing crony Bob Boone to the dubious title of "Interim Senior Director of Player Development/Assistant General Manager." I hope they can fit all that on his business card. I mean, his job title contains four must be a murky role if it's necessary to describe it in that detail. But I digress. Bowden also named Andy Dunn Interim Farm Director and Scott Little as Field Coordinator. If you put the three names together you get "Boone Dunn Little," which about sums up Boone's success as a coach and front office guy.

But what does it all mean? Let's start with facts. It's clear that MLB trusts Tavares's stewarship enough to keep him around. In turn, it's clear that Bowden is Tavares's man. So as long as we have Tavares we have Bowden.

Now on to the speculation. Yesterday's announcement seems to almost seal Frank Robinson's fate for next season. At this point, it seems very likely that he won't return. Tavares has openly criticized the Nats manager and has failed to endorse his return in 2006. Tony could have signed Frank to another short term contract but chose not to. So it seems safe to say that the hunt for a new manager will begin after the new ownership group is announced. Frank will only be back if the team can't find anyone better. I'm not too heartbroken about this. Frank is a great guy to have in your corner but the whole Cap'n Hook thing was just maddening. A young, scrappy team needs a young, scrappy manager. The managerial drama will be interesting to watch.

It's also interesting that Bowden was signed through the first month of the regular season. Unless a new owner could somehow terminate his contract, he'd still be in place on Opening Day. At that point it seems inevitable that the new ownership group would extend his contract at least through the 2006 season, but who knows. At any rate, this peculiar aspect of Bowden's extended contract could indicate that the front-running ownership candidate would be willing to keep them around. We'll see.

At least we're closer to seeing all this resolved than we were yesterday, right?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Nickles, Dimes and Scalpers

Barry Svrluga reports today that the Nats are working on a short-term contract extension for GM Jim Bowden. This is a good thing, as I've discussed ad nauseum. Without Bowden the team will scramble to find a third-rate caretaker GM while Carrasco, Loaiza and other and potential free agents sign elsewhere. Capitol Punishment, Nationals Interest, District of Baseball and Nats Triple Play all cover the Bowden story at length. I'll let my final word on the subject be this: no other GM that we could possibly sign this offseason before the free agency period will have the team's interests at heart the way Bowden does. I'd rather have a tenacious GM making questionable moves than a lame-duck caretaker whose only mission is to slash costs for the new owners. 'Nuff said.

There are two other very interesting aspects of the Svrluga article that have not been covered in the Natosphere. Club President Tony Tavares is hatching an evil plot to charge us more for popular games:

"Tavares, who is also unsure of his future, has begun thinking of different ways to structure ticket prices, including making more desirable games, such as weekend dates against teams such as the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees, more expensive, but offering discounts for games that would traditionally draw smaller crowds, such as Monday and Tuesday nights against lackluster opponents."

Good idea, Tony. Let's make sure we have sellout crowds in gigantic RFK by making it more cost prohibitive for people to attend the games they care about. These are exactly the kinds of moves that alienate fans. A Major League Baseball game is the last bastion of semi-affordable public entertainment left. Where else can you get three hours of professional entertainment for $10? Last time I checked they weren't making any more installments of The Lord of the Rings. Presumably the Baltimore games will be sellouts, so the team will already be making more money. The Yankee games might not sell out but we can assume the house will be packed.

Instead of punishing loyal fans who come to the games, Tavares should focus on creating more loyal fans by spending more money on marketing the team. Of course, the biggest boost would be a real TV deal for the team, but that's out of Tony's control. The team could make significant strides by advertising on the Metro, advertising in Express or Examiner and increasing the amount of promotional activity in the D.C. area. A better, stronger radio station would be helpful as well. I'm sure someone with the business acumen of Tavares can come up with even more effective solutions.

Tavares is also "knocking around" a plan to curtail the dreaded scalpers:

"The club is trying to figure out how to combat ticket scalping, which he considered to be a major problem during the Nationals' first season in town. He said the club may offer a service in which season ticket holders who know they won't be able to use a set of seats on a given night could offer the tickets back to the club and pay a processing fee. The club would then be able to offer some of those prime seats back to the public, perhaps taking scalpers out of the equation."

That's a great idea. Let's cozy up to season ticket owners by offering them a bogus shell game of a deal. Tavares's "plan" will fail because the scalpers still offer a greater incentive for those with unused tickets. If I'm a season ticketholder I can either take a loss on my unused tickets or sell them for face value to a scalper, eBay, Craig's List or the guy down the hall in the office.

This plan is a sham mostly because Nats season tickets are a sham. The club offers no financial incentive to purchase season tickets. If I buy a 20 game package I must pay face value for all of those tickets. Unless a ticketholder is determined to sit in a premium section, there is no point in a fan paying the team in advance for games s/he might attend. This may change in the early years of the new stadium, where sellouts might be the norm for years, but there is never a shortage of seats at RFK except on opening day. Scalpers will continue to run amok as long as there is a yawning chasm of available seats at RFK. The Tavares "plan" provides a further disincentive to purchasing season tickets and punishes loyal fans.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Concession Depression

Crap, it must be a really slow point in the offseason...I'm about to do a post on the concession situation at Nationals games last year.

Actually, I'm feeding off a nice post from my colleagues at The Nationals Interest about this same topic and others.

The guys at NI point out that there were numerous concession debacles this summer and correctly attribute many of these to the by-the-seat-of-their-pants management of the business side of the team this year. To be fair to the Nats, they were thrust in this situation by the chronic ineptitude of Bud Selig, Bob DuPuy, Peter Angelos, the D.C. Council, and all others who conspired to make the team's move from Montreal as much of a disaster as possible.

But there were a few things that could have been done to improve the concessions that wouldn't have cost the team a nickel. It irked me all summer that no food items were sold by the roving vendors in the stands. At every other ballpark there are vendors in the stands selling hot dogs, but none were to be found at RFK. In fact, the only items sold by the vendors were beer, bottled water, soda and cotton candy. Of those, 75% seemed to be selling beer. The only way to get a hot dog was to miss at least one inning waiting in a huge line for service as bad as your average CVS store. Why couldn't they have sold hot dogs in the stands? By July I'd given up on RFK concessions entirely and started bringing Subway to the game.

Another huge issue was the lack of ATMs in the park. The ATMs faced staggering lines, usually 20+ people deep. Twice I had the misfortune of needing cash at a Nats game and each time it cost me 45 minutes in line. People surely would have bought more concessions if they didn't have to face 45 minutes in the ATM line followed by 20 minutes in the hot dog line. Selling more than just beer and soda in the stands and adding more ATMs would have given concession sales a boost.

The NI also discusses the team's disappointing merchandise sales. I'm not sure what was so disappointing about them. Remember, this was the team's first year in DC. It seemed like nearly everone at the park had at least a Nationals cap to wear, but you really can't expect more than that for a first year team. Die-hard fandom is still several years away for many people. The Nats don't have a star player to drive replica jersey sales and people are only going to spend so much on crappy foam hands and inflatable bats in a given year. And as nice as it was to see the nod to the old Senators uniforms, those curly W hats aren't exactly going to be the hippest piece of street wear any time soon.

The Nationals Interest is right. Better management will help the team fix some of these issues. But marketing will never be top flight until a new ownership group is established and concessions, I'm afraid, will be dismal until Linda Cropp Stadium opens.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Elephant in the Stadium

An anonymous comment on my last entry gave me the impetus to discuss something I've been thinking about for awhile. The notion that the stadium MUST be in Anacostia in order to spur development is both untrue and unjust. The Southeast waterfront is going to develop with or without a new stadium. One only needs to drive through U Street, Shaw, Mt. Vernon Square or any other recently-gentrified DC neighborhood to see that the developers can't be stopped. In the 80s white suburbanites wanted out of the city. Now white suburbanites want back in because it's cool to live downtown again.

This is the elephant in the room in the whole stadium debate and perhaps what troubles the largely African-American council. They are rightly skeptical of development that will only benefit and attract even more white suburbanites while alienating and ultimately pushing out the residents of traditionally African-American neighborhoods. What happens when the demographics of that base get turned inside-out? Everyone loves to talk about revitalization, but isn't that just a code word for more Starbucks stores and Whole Foods groceries? Will incumbent residents have a seat at the table in the "revitalized" Southeast? It's a sensitive issue that is at the very heart of the stadium debate.

In fact, it's really not about the stadium at all but about the future of neighborhoods and ultimately the District itself. The current RFK stadium grounds would be a more cost-effective option for a new ballpark. It would be a more "neighborhood friendly" option as well. In order to proceed with the Anacostia site the city will have to use eminent domain to uproot residents and businesses in the area. Where are these residents supposed to go? Everyone knows that housing prices in the DC area have soared in recent years. Is it fair to force longtime residents into the suburbs so we can all go to Ruby Tuesday's after a ballgame?

The RFK site makes sense for many reasons. It's cheaper for the city because DC already controls the land. It's also extremely transit friendly and conveniently located at the apex of three of the region's major expressways. It couldn't be easier to get to a Nationals game. The Anacostia site would require significant upgrades to the Waterfront Metro Station, but Metro is already having enough trouble making ends meet. And of course, there's the eminent domain situation.

MLB claims that it prefers the Anacostia site, but the ownership groups have indicated that they have no preference between RFK and SE. Of course they don't, they don't have to pay for the stadium! I think MLB doesn't care either, but they don't want to set a precedent of letting the DC council renege on agreements. I can't say I blame them.

Personally, I don't care where they put the park. I live in Arlington and don't have a vested interest in the situation. But I think it's important for people to understand that the stadium debate is about more than just a baseball park. Issues of community, class and perhaps even race are simmering just below the surface.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Plot Thickens

Stadium Shenanigans

Who said that the Nats offseason had to be dull? The past two days have brought a flurry of developments in the struggle to build the Nats a new stadium. The first announcement was that Wall Street would not give DC a bond rating due to "technical" problems with the stadium lease. This means that the lease goes back to the D.C. Council for amendments. Some council members, including Vincent Orange, mentioned the possibility of re-opening the entire lease agreement for revision, including a potential motion to build the stadium at the RFK site. The paranoid elements of the Natosphere went nuts, predicting doom and gloom as usual.

On Saturday, Linda Cropp announced that she would support the Waterfront stadium site despite her earlier reservations: "Heaven knows, I did want it at RFK. But now the council has voted for the other site, and that is where we are moving forward." As council chair, it appears that Cropp has the power to limit amendments on stadium lease legislation to "technical" amendments only, or "three tax-related issues, which city financial officials have described as mistakes in wording that do not alter the council's intent to finance the stadium." This move would neatly bypass Orange and others who might want to open Pandora's Box on the issue. The Washington Post reports that the council will vote on these issues "over the next two months."

I've written extensively in this space about not giving in to paranoia and panic over every snippet of news that comes out about the stadium. What we've seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg. The politicians on the council are going to be playing musical chairs on this issue up to the last minute as they all struggle to gain favor with key constituencies. Their actions are going to be guided exclusively on which way they feel the political winds are blowing that week. Isn't it interesting that Cropp, who almost prevented the Nats from coming here at all, is now prepared to use parlimentary procedure to keep the team in Anacostia. It's simple: now that Tony Williams has announced his intention not to run, Cropp no longer needs to play the role of spoiler to make a name for herself. Just wait until sometime in December when Cropp delivers the stadium lease in Anacostia and paints herself as not only the savior of DC baseball but the Woman Who Saved Southeast. Think that might win some votes? Does a bear crap in the woods?

The stadium issue will undoubtedly be a huge factor in the 2006 D.C. elections. But think about it, does any of the candidates actually think that he/she can win by deep-sixing the Nationals? Never in a million years.

Bowden's Pizza Heating Up?

The Nationals' official website reports that the team has given the Arizona Diamondbacks permission to talk to Jim Bowden about their GM vacancy. Uh, now when you say "the team" has given them permission, that almost certainly means Tony Tavares. Why, just this week Tony was encouraging Bowden and Frank to pursue other opportunities if they came along...interesting. Tavares supplied a ringing endorsement of Bowden in the interview but the events of this week may have prompted him to take an "every man for himself" approach to front office personnel for next year. In any case, if Bowden gets an offer from Arizona, he'd be nuts not to take it.

Y'know, this could mushroom into a larger issue for the Nats. Almost everyone but me seems to hate Bowden, but there's this universal assumption that we could just get some other, effective GM. But think about it, if you were a "free agent" general manager, why would you come to the Nats? Let's say you are out looking for a job and there's an opening at this company you like. But wait, your co-workers are all temps and your boss has a contract that is set to expire in two weeks. Do you take that job? Hell no!

Everyone is quick to want to show Bowden the door, but be careful what you wish for. Do you really think that Brian Cashman is going to come down here and work for this boondoggle? If Bowden leaves, then who do we get? Who's on Cold Pizza these days?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Deja Vu

Over at Capitol Punishment , Chris outlines a Boswell article from today's WaPo about potential renovations to RFK. It seems that Boz is in St. Louis and has had ample time to plumb the depths of the once renovated, soon to be destroyed Busch Stadium. Chris raises an interesting question: might some Croppites out there start calling for a similar renovation of RFK in lieu of building a new stadium? It wouldn't surprise me at all, but the renovation will never happen.

Those who read this blog regularly know that I don't buy in to much, if any, of the cynical doomsday predictions surrounding the Nats in the media. You see, I've been through all this before in my previous life as a Reds fan. I lived in Cincinnati in the mid-90's at the height of the professional sports stadium extortion era. In 1995 both the Bengals and the Reds told the taxpayers of Hamilton County that the teams would move elsewhere if they did not pony up for new stadiums. These were real threats back then; Los Angeles and Houston were available for NFL teams and the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks were twinkles in their cities' eyes. The taxpayers in one of America's most conservative counties went to the polls in March 1996 and approved a half penny on the dollar sales tax increase to pay for two new an ultimate cost of one billion dollars.

The Bengals wasted no time breaking ground on Paul Brown Stadium, but Great American Ball Park was a different story. The city council and the Reds immediately began squabbling over where to build the stadium and what form the lease should take. Some wanted the park to be built on the site of Riverfront Stadium and others wanted the park farther into downtown. The haggling went on for months, and months became years. At the height of the impasse, some city council members (who were running for mayor in the next election cycle) started questioning the need for a new stadium. Busch Stadium had just been renovated to rave reviews, and they wondered why the same couldn't be done to Riverfront. People soon realized what an idiotic idea this was, and GABP opened in 2003.

Renovating old, inadequate stadiums is a waste of money because the returns are so low on the investment. The cookie-cutter stadiums (of which RFK will be the last) have an expected useful life of 30 years. It is more cost effective to build a brand new stadium (thus creating an additional 30 year asset) than it is to spend money on renovations that only extend the life for another ten years. The reason is simple: the cost of money today is cheaper than it will be ten years from now. Busch Stadium was built in 1966 for $20 million. That's only $117 million in today's dollars. But the DC stadium project is estimated at $581 million dollars! It doesn't make sense to renovate RFK any more than necessary to make it an adequate place to play until the new park arrives.

Furthermore, there are some things about RFK that just can't be renovated away. There are only two kitchens and one service elevator in the stadium. This guarantees that the quality of the food at the park will always be one notch above that of a vending machine. The concourses are narrow; fans have to cut through the food lines just to get around to their seats. And of course, there aren't enough restrooms, especially for the ladies. If Linda Cropp ever suggests renovating RFK stadium then I suggest we have her drink a gallon of water and then go stand in line for the restroom at a Sunday afternoon game.

Stadiums are major city landmarks and an important source of civic pride. Projects of this emotional magnitude bring every politician and neighborhood do-gooder out of the woodwork for their 15 minutes of fame. If the Cincinnati experience holds true here, we haven't even seen the tip of the stadium-fight iceberg. But this stadium will be built sometime this decade. And all of these same politicians will be offering up tear-jerking tributes to RFK and congratulating each other for building the new park. In my crystal ball I see Linda Cropp taking the mound on Opening Day 2010 throwing out the first pitch in Nationals Stadium.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Tavares Speaks Out featured an interview with Nationals President Tony Tavares on Wednesday. Tony speaks candidly on a number of the issues that are currently abuzz in the Natosphere. The entire interview is worth a read but I'll feature highlights here.

It looks like the Nationals will not be big spenders in free agency this offseason:

Tavares: We would love to get a bopper somewhere, but it's a tough free-agent market place. If you really look at it, there is not a lot of quality. There are a few players here and there. I read somebody saying there is going to be a lot of money wasted in free agency this year and I think that's true. There are going to be a lot of bad contracts [that are going to be done] out of desperation. We're assuming the Nationals will not be one of those desperate teams?

Tavares: We always played conservatively. We will intelligently get involved. If things get silly and stupid, there's no point getting involved in that level. The worse thing in the world is when you are paying for players at premium prices and they don't perform for you. That's true failure at that point. We have to avoid it.

Bad contracts done out of desperation? What, like the Guzman contract? No shock there. All indications seem that MLB is going to let the Nats work with the $50 million or so in their budget until a new owner comes in and sets a payroll. Well, at least we'll have a higher payroll than Tampa! I think we'll have to wait awhile to get our "bopper."

Tony also sounds off on the issue of moving in the fences. Boz makes an excellent case for moving in the wall in his final e-mail newsletter of 2005, but it looks like the club will have none of it:"Players such as Jose Guillen and Vinny Castilla made a big deal about Robert F. Kennedy Stadium being too big to hit home runs. What was your reaction to the griping?

Tavares: It didn't seem like the opposing teams had problems hitting home runs. When you [talk about] moving the fences in, I will guarantee you our pitching staff will not be in support of that. It's just silliness. Jim and I told Jose this already: "Deal with the issues that are in front of you. It is what it is." I think it became a distraction during a point in time. When all that complaining started, we lost our focus and we didn't play as well. My point is, quit your complaining and just play baseball.

Um, OK, Tony. But the fences ARE a bit far, as much as ten feet farther than they were during the Senators era. Of course the pitching staff wouldn't support moving the walls in. They'd probably support doing away with the walls altogether so that the only way to hit a homer was to send one into the upper deck. And anyway, pitching wasn't our problem this year. The offensive power outage was one of the main reason for the team's demise. Another couple home runs at RFK this year could have made a big impact in the tight NL East/Wild Card race. The claim that other teams didn't have problems hitting homers at RFK is bunk. People didn't start clobbering home runs until September, when we were down to a three man rotation and a bullpen full of tired arms. Until then, a home run at RFK was a rare experience.

Apparently team discipline and player apathy are a huge issue: We often wondered why the Nationals didn't practice before day games.

Tavares: I wonder that, too. It's something that will not be accepted going forward, I can tell you that. When I say we didn't work hard enough, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

Too many times, we didn't take batting practice. If you look at our record on Sundays, it's indicative of our success. I just don't think we prepare as well.

WHAT? We were in a playoff race and the team didn't take BP before day games? The worst offense in baseball couldn't be bothered to take some extra swings? That's one of the worst things I've ever heard about the Nats. That says to me that the players didn't give a damn about winning and neither did Frank. In my mind, this rests squarely on Frank's shoulders. Everyone knows you can't win if you're not prepared to win. Hopefully the coaching staff and players next year will take their jobs more seriously. This isn't Montreal, for goodness sakes.

Tony expresses the frustration that we all feel about the ownership situation: The team still doesn't have ownership. When do you think the announcement will be made?

Tavares: I don't know. I wish I did know. In a lot of people's view, the sooner the better. There have been decisions made that said we will not get ownership selected until the [stadium] lease is done. We have been working diligently to get that done, but it takes two to tango. We just can't seem to get the city's attention on this issue.

Tony seems to feel that the DC Council and the DCSEC are to blame here. After yesterday's events I'm beginning to think he's right. The crappy politicians that sit on the council will say anything to grab a headline in a mayoral campaign where the candidates have precious few opportunities to differentiate themselves. It's enough to make me wish the Senate still ran D.C.

Tavares discusses the upcoming expiration of club employees' contracts: The contracts for all your employees, including Bowden and Frank Robinson, expire on Oct. 31. Let's say ownership is not in place by then. What are you going to do with the employees?

Tavares: I'll do the same thing I did last year. We go month-to-month. I'm going to put our Minor Leagues in place. We are going to hire scouts and so forth. But in key positions -- like GM, manager and team president -- we just have to wait.

And wait we will.

Finally, Tony endorses Jim Bowden but falls short of endorsing Frank Robinson: Do you want Bowden back with the team?

Tavares: If I come back, I'm definitely offering a job to Jim Bowden. What about Robinson?

Tavares: That would be Jim Bowden's call or a new GM's call. I didn't hire the manager or the coaches, and I'm certainly not going to fire the manager and the coaches.

Even though the CEO of your company isn't directly responsible for hiring/firing you, wouldn't you be a bit nervous if your only endorsement was "I'm not going to fire you?" It makes you wonder what the relationship dynamics in the triumvirate (Tony, Frank, Bowden) are really like. If a new owner comes in and retains Tavares and Bowden, might there be pressure to hire one of this year's "free agent" managers? Could get interesting...Sweet Lou is out there, Joe Torre could be out there, and there's always Davey Johnson. I can't imagine any of those guys saying "sure, it's Sunday, the Astros are in town, and we're a game and a half out of the wild card...let's skip batting practice!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Owner's Box

There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately over the situation surrounding the Nationals' would-be owners. Nearly everything I've heard and read, both in the Washington Post and in the Natosphere has taken a Chicken Little, doomsday attitude toward the situation. The same tired refrain has been repeated so often that it's now taken as gospel: MLB is up to no good, Smulyan is the chosen owner of the Nats and corporate/out-of-town ownership is bad.

In today's MLB chat on Washington Les Carpenter offers a more level-headed view that I share:

It's a little more complicated than that. I think each side is trying to heap blame on the other for why this isn't getting done. Baseball isn't ready to name an owner yet for whatever reason (it may still be vetting candidates or trying to get two groups to merge or it just wants to hold onto the team as long as it can) and the city is still bickering. This will eventually work itself out...I think. It would also be too soon to assume Jeff Smulyan is getting the team.

It's important to keep in mind that Bud Selig, Bob DuPuy and Jerry Reinsdorf have said precious little on the subject of the Nationals to date. We have frustratingly few facts and an abundance of paranoid, yet well-founded speculation. In fact, we only know two facts. We know that MLB intends to sell the Nationals before the start of the 2006 season. We know that there are eight deep-pocketed, well-connected groups who have placed bids and presented their case for ownership before MLB execs. Everything you've heard or read outside these two facts is pure conjecture.

Jeff Smulyan seems to have been anointed owner-in-waiting. But this coronation has come at the hands of journalists and bloggers, not baseball execs. There's good reason to speculate that Smulyan might get the team based on his cozy connections with MLB execs, but there is no reason to believe that these connections alone are enough for him to prevail.

Those who assume he will prevail also suggest that the involvement of the Ennis Corporation and the fact that he is not from the D.C. area mean certain doom for the future of the franchise. Where is the evidence to support that out-of-town or corporate ownership automatically place the team in jeopardy? Smulyan's Seattle/Tampa Bay standoff is a definite black mark on his record, but 1992 is not 2006. The 1990s was an era of rapid expansion/relocation in every major pro sport. Nearly every franchise in the MLB, NFL and NBA demanded a new stadium/arena and used relocation as leverage to extort those facilities. But here we are in 2005 and those threats are largely empty. Sports executives have been so successful at getting expensive facilities built and expanding franchises into new markets that there is no more grazing room.

There are no more Tampa Bays for Smulyan to use as leverage. Nearly every team has a new stadium and corporate/out-of-town ownership is the norm. After all, the same Mariners that supposedly dodged a bullet when Smulyan left are now owned by Nintendo, the ultimate out of town owner. The Boston Red Sox have made two consecutive trips to the postseason under their new owner. Marge Schott had deep Cincinnati roots and even she threatened to move the 136 year old Cincinnati Reds franchise unless her demands for a new stadium were met. The bottom line: local ownership doesn't guarantee stability and non-local ownership doesn't guarantee doom.

Let's cut through the hype and look at the Nationals' situation rationally. It seems clear that MLB doesn't want to announce the owner until after the postseason, especially with the White Sox involved. It seems likely, however, that they will announce the owner after the World Series and before November 15th. In the meantime, baseball is probably trying to get some ownership groups to merge in order to create a compromise pick that everyone could live with. It'd be hard for people to scream if the Smulyan group merged with the Malek group, right? Finally, MLB is probably dragging its feet to buy the new ownership time while the DC Council/stadium lease thing works it's way out. Baseball doesn't want to throw a potential hand grenade in the lap of a rookie ownership group.

I'm certainly not an apologist for MLB or Jeff Smulyan. If I were in charge I'd see the team awarded to the most qualified of the groups that worked for so many years to bring baseball back to this area. If anyone "deserves" to own the team it would be the Malek or Collins groups because they've been such passionate supporters of Beltway Baseball. But let's not assume that any other outcome will be a disaster for the Nats. If anything is certain, it's that the new ownership will provide plenty of fodder for both boos and cheers, and that is enough, for me at least, to put worse fears to rest.

Relax, everyone.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Contraction Reaction

If you haven't read it yet, take a look at the essential guide to the ownership quagmire posted at Capitol Punishment yesterday. Chris Needham breaks down what's at stake for each of the three parties (MLB, D.C. city council, and DCSEC) in the negotiations. For supplemental reading, don't miss misschatter's comprehensive breakdown of would-be Nats owners. Needham rears the ugly spectacle of contracting the Nationals.

"In the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Player's Association agreed to drop their objections to contraction after the '06 season. I know it's a longshot, but it IS a possibility again, especially with Florida's continued inability to get their stadium built. If MLB decides to hold on to the team through the end of next season, the likelihood skyrockets.

Why would they turn down $450 million though? Because they stand to make more money.

Short-term, they'd each have a larger share of the $2.37 billion TV contract they just signed with ESPN. Long-term, MLB could expand in a decade when Las Vegas or Portland become more viable markets. Arizona and Tampa Bay, for example, paid $130 million as an expansion fee. That's a price that's only going to go up, netting them more money down the road."

I commented that I didn't think contraction of the Nationals would happen. I feel the need to elaborate on this point.

From a purely business standpoint, the Washington Nationals are worth more to MLB alive than dead. Their $450 million sale price isn't just some made up number. It reflects the net present value of the team, that is, some higher, terminal value (the value at some fixed future date) discounted for expected cash flows. In other words, MLB expects the team to generate significant positive cash flows for the forseeable future. There's no way they'd give up this revenue.

Needham states that the owners would make more money by garnering a larger share of the ESPN contract. This larger share would amount to peanuts, only $7.9 million more per team, assuming contraction of two teams and even distribution of the contract among those teams. $7.9 million will barely buy a one year contract for a quality starting pitcher.

Needham also says that MLB will stand to gain more by contracting now and re-expanding in a decade when other viable markets emerge. I disagree for several reasons. There is no guarantee that Portland or Las Vegas will be any more desirable in a decade than they are now. Also, baseball would be losing those ever-increasing cash flows that I discussed earlier by not having a team in DC. Economics 101 tells us that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. MLB would be foolish to scuttle a team that is profitable today only to wait a decade to start a team that might be profitable in 2015. Finally, Needham says that MLB would gain by reaping a large expansion fee. This is true, but it's still not enough to justify contraction of a profitable team. That $130 million fee, or whatever it would be down the road, is only a one-time cash infusion. A profitable Nationals team earning cash flows (and thus revenue sharing) each year generates a continuous stream of money for the league. In other words, the Nationals are worth much more to MLB than just $450 million in 2005.

You can't say the same for clubs that persistently dwell on the lower end of the revenue scale. If MLB is losing money, they would be nuts not to contract or relocate a franchise. Others have pointed out that there is really nowhere left to go for MLB if and until Portland or Vegas prove their commercial viability. We fans often miss the big picture. We care about whether the team wins; baseball cares about whether or not it makes money. A look at Forbes' MLB team valuations shows that the "safest" teams are not always the most sucessful ones. The Yankees are operating at a $37 million loss this season while the D-Rays are netting $27 million. The Nationals are safely ensconced in the middle as the 16th most valuable franchise in baseball. But even more telling is the fact that the franchise's value has soared 114 percent from 2004. It made sense to consider contracting the loser Expos, but contracting the Nats would be fiscal suicide. And you can't collect the insurance from that...

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Jim Bowden Should Stay

If I had the ear of the Nationals new owners, I'd tell them something that few in the Natosphere would agree with: Jim Bowden should be signed to a multi-year contract as general manager of the Washington Nationals.

I have a different perspective on Bowden than many in the DC area. As a former Cincinnati resident and Reds fan, I've closely followed Bowden's entire career. He became the youngest GM in major league history when he was hired by the Reds before the 1993 season at the tender age of 31. During his ten years with the Reds, he consistently displayed a knack for making bold roster moves and impact signings for a small market team with a tiny payroll. As Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty points out, Bowden's marquee moves include trading Dave Burba for Sean Casey, acquiring Pete Harnisch, Denny Neagle, Kevin Mitchell and, of course, Ken Griffey Jr.

Bowden was fired by the Reds during the course of the 2003 season along with manager Bob Boone and others. The Reds replaced Bowden and Boone with lame, stay the course managers (Dave Miley and then Jerry Narron) and current GM Dan O'Brien, whose only feat so far has been signing Eric Milton, the worst pitcher in the majors this side of Jose Lima. In his column Daugherty laments the loss of Bowden, saying the Reds would have been better off keeping him.

I completely agree. Jim Bowden is prolific at signing talented, yet largely unsung players with limited financial support from a stingy owner. Sound familiar? The Nationals' $48.5 million payroll at the beginning of the year is nearly identical to the payrolls given to him by Reds owner Marge Schott and later, Carl Lindner. During Bowden's tenure, the Reds signed and/or developed the core of a very potent offensive team, including Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Sean Casey, Wily Mo Pena and others. Wouldn't you love to have guys like that on the Nationals, a team that actually has decent pitching? Given time, Bowden can make this possible.

Speaking of pitching, many in the media and Natosphere have stated that Bowden's biggest folly this season was giving away too much pitching, wearing out the rotation and bullpen down the stretch. These charges are true, but hindsight is always 20-20. The Nationals revolving door of injuries meant that Bowden had to put out one fire only to race to the next. The Tomo Ohka trade, for example, has been highly criticized, but taken in context it made sense at the time. Jose Vidro had just gone down with a serious injury that could have cost him the season. The team had to make a move to fill that void at second base. Ohka, at the time, was performing terribly on the mound and causing issues in the clubhouse. However, Spivey soon went down with a season-ending injury of his own, and Ohka found new life in Milwaukee. Bowden could not have predicted any of these things. He went with the best information he had at the time and took a chance.

Many also decry the loss of Zach Day and Sunny Kim to the Rockies. Again, these moves made sense at the time. Like Ohka, Day had clubhouse issues and a sub-par performance for the Nats. In return, Washington got Preston Wilson, who performed well in the clutch despite his high strikeout totals. Consider what would have happened to the season if we hadn't had Wilson to spell Wilkerson in center field and in turn, allow Wilky to cover first while Johnson was injured (again). Who would have played first? Baerga? I shudder to think...without Wilson the Nats would not be .500 this year. The Sunny Kim incident was regrettable but necessary in order to keep Tony Blanco, a future prospect, with the team. Blanco may someday be a huge asset for this team; can you say the same for Sunny Kim? He was getting shellacked before the Rockies picked him up off waivers.

And finally, Bowden even did what he could to resolve the Guzman problem by acquiring Deivi Cruz for the stretch run. If you remember, Cruz was all set to be the starter at shortstop until Vidro got injured yet again. Guzman and Cruz had to play SS and 2B and the rest is history.

I like Jim Bowden because he embodies the attitude the whole team should have: he never gives up. He is always working the phones and looking for a deal, even late in the season when playoff hopes are slim. This is a much better alternative to a conservative, stay-the-course GM like Dan O'Brien. Critics may dismiss Bowden's zeal as merely an audition for his job next year, but I've been following him for 12 years now, and he's always like this. Bowden displays the kind of tenacious, never-say-die attitude that a scrappy, upcoming team like the Nationals will need in 2006 and beyond.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Should the Nats Pursue Juan Pierre?

Aha! The first hot stove arguments of the year are heating up. Today's WaPo reports that the Nats may consider acquiring Florida Marlins outfielder Juan Pierre to fill the much-needed leadoff role. My colleagues over at Nationals Interest challenge the assumption that Pierre's presence would help the Nationals OBP:

"Here are Pierre's 2005 stats: .271/.322/.349. In 650 at bats, he had only 41 walks. All three of the Nationals' outfielders with the highest number of at bats (with the Nationals) had higher on base percentages than Pierre--Wilkerson, .352; Guillen, .337; Church, .354--and all three had substantially higher slugging percentages--Wilkerson, .405; Guillen, .475; Church, .457."

This is all true...the numbers don't lie, of course! However, it was noted all season that Pierre was having a down year. His numbers were uncharacteristically low given his career stats. Here are Pierre's career averages: .305/.355/.375. While it is true that he doesn't walk a lot (he averages 43 walks per season) he also doesn't strike out a lot (he averages 40 strikeouts per season). Wilkerson, on the other hand, averages 162 strikeouts per season! That's once per game, every game, for his entire career! Wilky averages 93 walks per season.

So let's compare the strikeout to walk ratio of the two: Wilkerson strikes out 1.74 times for each time he draws a walk. Pierre, on the other hand, strikes out 0.93 times for every time he draws a walk. So he may not walk much, but at least he walks more than he strikes out. This is an important statistic for any player, but especially for a leadoff hitter. However, these numbers don't explain why Wilky has a slightly higher OBP than Pierre...on that I have no clue.

But let's look at another important leadoff hitter statistic. Juan Pierre has averaged 51 stolen bases per year for five years. As Barry points out, that's 6 more than the entire Nats team managed all year. So if Pierre gets on base roughly as many times as Wilkerson but steals five times as many bases, that translates to many more runs scored. Pierre's speed will be an even greater asset in cavernous RFK, where triples are an almost nightly occurrence. If Pierre can get on first he's going to have no trouble at all reaching third or scoring in situations where other Nats might get held up at second or third.

The final reason why Pierre makes sense (from an athletic standpoint at least) is that he plays center field! Since Wilson's departure seems imminent, Pierre would fill in nicely. Wilkerson could finally play in left where he feels more at home, bat sixth where some of the pressure would be off, and best of all, the Nats would only be stuck with one horrendous striker-outer on the squad. Juan Pierre would be an exciting and effective addition to the Nats.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The HR Department

I'd like to put two questions out to the lurkers/bloggers out there (if there are any at this nascent state of this site).

1. What do you think are the top three most urgent personnel needs on the field?

2. Of the Tony/Frank/Jim triumvirate, who, if anyone do you think will return next year?

I'll start off with my $0.02. I think our most pressing need would be a leadoff hitter. We need one badly. I'd love to see the Nats pick up Juan Pierre. He could play center and fill the void left (presumably) by Preston Wilson and hitting style would go well in RFK since he doesn't hit a lot of homers anyway. After that I'd say we need a setup man, a Kyle Farnsworth type guy who can come in the 8th and set up Cordero. It'd also be nice to have that guy be a former closer, someone who could step into that role should Cordero falter. Finally, I think we need a solid fourth starter to go with Patterson, Hernandez and Loaiza.

As far as Tony, Frank and Jim are concerned my hunch is that they'll all be back, at least to start the season. No one in the prospective new ownership pool seems likely to have candidates-in-waiting. A shakeup at the top solely for the sake of causing a shakeup seems like a terrible way to start a new ownership era. Besides, MLB is likely to drag its cleats for so long on this that there literally won't be time to conduct a dilligent search for a new manager, GM or president. Until the new owner gets its bearings I don't see them replacing any of the three, but 2007 should be a different story.

Nats MVP

Chris Needham has an excellent discussion going on over at Capitol Punishment about who the MVP and Cy Young would be just for the Nats. Here are my picks.

1. Chad Cordero
2. Luis Ayala
3. Brian Schneider

Cy Young
John Patterson

I feel the need to qualify these. Cordero gets MVP because he saved so many games. If you recall we didn't have a known closer at the beginning of the year and that was just one reason why people thought the Nats would get destroyed. 23 year old Cordero came out of nowhere and led the MLB in saves. Awesome. Is anyone else concerned about his ability to play 162 games though? He went from savior to liability at the end of the year.

Ayala didn't get much credit this year but he was huge as an inning-eater when the team wasn't always getting quality starts from the rotation. In fact, Frank pitched him so much (he led the league in IP for most of the year) that he wore out too early. The entire bullpen was solid this year but Ayala was the best of them.

Brian Schneider was at times the only constant in the offense. He quietly put up solid offensive numbers and could be counted on to deliver in the clutch. He was also one of the only Nationals regulars not to end up injured for long stretches of time, which gave the team consistency in terms of personnel. I think I read somewhere that the Nats used more players (50-some) than any team in the majors. Schneider was always there when the team needed him. He was also a great defensive catcher.

Patterson gets Cy Young because he's hands down the team's best pitcher. His record doesn't reflect his dominance this year, due to crappy run support. The 3.5 man rotation in September also hurt him.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Say It Ain't So

Argh! The Nats finished the year with a loss (and a sweep) to the hated Phillies. The Phillies and their fans disgust me.

But never mind...the season has ended and the Nats went 81-81. I think that record is so appropriate given the dichotomy between the first and second halves. The team went 50-31 the first half and 31-50 the second half...night and day, X and Y, etc.

My emotions are so mixed right now. It was such an amazing, special summer to have this team in DC playing the way they did with the circumstances they were faced with. It was magical seeing old RFK brought back to life and such a pleasant surprise to see a large, die-hard fan base come out of the woodwork. But the season was so heartbreaking! The first half had us dreaming big dreams, dreams that would die a slow, frustrating death in July, August and September. I think the low point for me was Cordero's grand slam in San Diego.

And now I'm even more heartbroken that the season is over. There are so many open-ended developments just waiting to be resolved, and now we'll have to wait weeks or months at a time, instead of hours at a time, to find out what's new with the Nats. For my part, I don't want it to end. It's all been so magical. I've enjoyed going to RFK, watching the games on TV and checking the score each night before bed to find out the night's outcome. But hey, it's only 182 days until Opening Day.

Part of the reason that I don't want the season to end is a deep unease I feel with this ownership situation. I dread that we haven't seen the last of the battles between Linda Cropp and MLB. My nightmare scenario plays out like this: baseball gives the team to Smulyan. DC council, led by Cropp (in an election year) decides to counter-attack by refusing to pony up for the new park. Smulyan/MLB retaliate by moving the team. Does anyone else share this fear? I don't think this will happen, but I won't breathe easy until the team puts down some deeper roots in this area. The deepest roots of all would be getting a new owner with strong local ties and a construction crew digging on the banks of the Anacostia this spring.

In any event, it's been a hell of a season, and I'm proud to be a Nationals fan.