The Washington Nationals, according to rumors last winter which preceded Cliff Lee's decision to return to Philadelphia, were preparing to throw a lot of years and dollars at the left-hander in an attempt to make a huge splash in the free agent market by adding an outfielder (Jayson Werth) and a front-end starter that would immediately bring credibility and championship experience to the nation's capital's Nats. Werth bought into what the Nationals were selling, telling reporters in his introductory press conference, "The team's a lot better than people think...the last few years they've just been a little young, a little inexperienced. They've made some changes, got some guys in that I think are going to help, I'm on board with that and I think we're going to surprise a lot of people."
D.C. GM Mike Rizzo confirmed the Nats' interest in Lee, telling Sirius/XM MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Duquette and Kevin Kennedy in an interview last November, "I'd be a fool if I didn't like Cliff Lee or want Cliff Lee on our club. He's the prize pitching guy in this year's free agent market. But I'm not going to delude myself to the fact that we have a great chance of landing Cliff Lee."
Asked how he'd sell free agents on coming to Washington, D.C., Rizzo, who was then a month away from shocking the baseball world with the Werth deal, said the Nationals, "... are going to sell one of the most powerful cities in the world here in Washington, D.C. with a great fanbase and a great ballpark and like I said, a good core of young players that we believe are going to be viable championship caliber players in the very, very near future. We're certainly not looking past 2011, but we feel '11 is going to be a building block year for us with a chance to show that we've come from being a viable franchise to a competing franchise."
Lee opted for Philadelphia, explaining in his own introductory press conference that the opportunity to pitch in a rotation that included Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels was too good to pass up, but he also hinted that he'd discussed the possibility of signing somewhere with his former teammate on the Phillies. "'Yeah. I don’t know if I can say exactly how that conversation went down here, to be honest with you," Lee told reporters, explaining that he'd spoken to Werth. "'I know once we both got on the free agent market, we talked about trying to get on the same team. Obviously when he signed with the Nationals and I signed here, it didn’t happen. When he found out I was coming here, he wasn’t the happiest person in the world. I’ll put it that way (smiling)."
Zack Greinke too passed on the opportunity to pitch in the nation's capital, explaining in a Washington Post article by Dave Sheinin entitled, "Desire to win now kept Greinke from joining Nationals", after he had nixed a potential deal to the Nats and was instead dealt to Milwaukee, that a chance to win right away had played a big part in his decision. ""The one thing I couldn’t get over was the fact that, here I was trying to get out of Kansas City because the team wasn’t good. Not saying [the Nationals] don’t have a chance, but I was trying to get to a team that was looking really good at the moment. And I believe [the Nationals] will be good eventually."
Lee and Greinke made good decisions. Both made it to the playoffs with their respective teams, though the Phillies were eliminate by the Cardinals in the NLDS and the Brewers fell to the Cards in the championship series. Werth too was right, the Nationals did surprise a lot of people with their 3rd place finish in the NL East and another ten-game improvement from 2009's 59 wins and 2010's 69 to 80 wins in 161 games played in 2011 in spite of Werth's personal struggles at the plate.
Before the 2011 season, Werth's agent, Scott Boras, explained to MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Bowden and Casey Stern that the 7-year/$126 million dollar deal Werth signed in Washington had changed the perception of the team. "We also know that from the standpoint of attracting free agent pitchers," Boras said, "or attracting a closer, or attracting any other free agents, that we have an ownership that is now embedded in the market place as someone who is a destination that they know the ownership is committed."
The big free agent deal wasn't the first move the Nationals had made to become a more attractive destination. They'd started their rebuilding process from the ground up and committed to spending on the draft first before last winter's big splash in the free agent market. The Werth signing signaled the beginning of Phase Two of the Nats' development or "evolution" as the Nat's GM put it a press release last December. When the Nationals agreed to a well-above-slot major league deal with 2011 3rd Round pick Matt Purke, the 21-year-old left-hander said the moves the Nats made the last few years played a role in his decision to join the organization:
"They come highly recommended. I've seen the things they've done the last few years with the prospects they've brought in and the Major League players as well. This organization is going to be very strong, they're building, and they're going to be a serious team to deal with in the years to come. I knew I wanted to be a part of that and hopefully to be a helpful piece in the puzzle."
The true test of whether or not the perception of the franchise has changed comes after the 2011 season officially ends at the conclusion of the World Series, when the Hot Stove season begins and the Nationals attempt to find the outfielder and pitcher they've openly admitted they'd like to add this winter. New York Post writer Joel Sherman wrote this week, in an article entitled, "Sabathia talks with Yankees could push limits", that the big question a pitcher like CC Sabathia faces this winter, "... if any team(s) are willing to go beyond the $92 million left," on his current deal with New York, will be, "... if Sabathia would really leave to play in, say, Washington?"
Will Prince Fielder, Sabathia or C.J. Wilson want to come to the nation's capital? The Nationals, according to MLB.com's Bill Ladson, scouted Wilson late this season, and more than one source has identified Washington as a potential destination for the Texas Rangers' 30-year-old left-hander who's the top pitching prize of this year's free agent market, though not quite in the same category as Cliff Lee.
ESPN.com's Buster Olney identified the Nationals as the current favorites to land both Fielder and Wilson in an article in this week's ESPN the Magazine. In his "Daily Scoop" article this afternoon entitled, "Rays' Friedman is latest name to join busy GM merry-go-round", SI.com's Jon Heyman wrote that, "The Nationals seem like one possibility," for Wilson, who could come at a relatively affordable price. "One GM said he envisioned a $75 million, five-year deal." The Nationals have also been mentioned as a potential destination for Nippon Ham Fighters' right-hander Yu Darvish, who, Mr. Heyman said one GM told him could, "... cost a team about $100 million between posting price and salary, and another agreed that it will be 'big bucks,'" though, "... yet another said it shouldn't be that much."
The Jayson Werth signing, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo said last winter, "... ushered in Phase Two of our franchise's evolution where we add the key pieces that will help us compete for division titles and championships." "Washington is now a different brand," Scott Boras said, "It is now an acknowledged brand. Their fans know it. Other players know it. And it provides a brand value to the franchise that did not exist prior to Jayson Werth signing." Rizzo said at the end of the season that he thought the Nationals were, "... an outfield bat away and a starting pitcher away from really being a contender in the division." In a few weeks the Nationals and their fans will find out if the players the team targets agree.