WASHINGTON - On April 29, the Washington Nationals announced with great fanfare that they were exercising a $4 million option for 2006 on outfielder Jose Guillen's contract.
Rather than simply issue a news release, the team sat Guillen down next to club officials in the RFK Stadium media room and heralded the outfielder's talent and drive.
The reason for the hoopla? The Nationals wanted to make a statement about not only their affection for Guillen but also their desire to keep players considered vital to the team's future success.
Retaining and acquiring key players is tricky for the Nationals. Owned by Major League Baseball, the former Montreal Expos are in the process of being sold. Until the new owners are in place, the club's front office can't realistically make the same commitments, at least in the long term, as other franchises without checking with MLB first.
If things were less in limbo, the team says it would be taking definitive steps to assure the long-term status of such players as catcher Brian Schneider, 28, and outfielder Brad Wilkerson, also 28, who are working under short-term deals.
"We will recommend to the new owners that players such as Wilkerson be signed to long-term deals," general manager Jim Bowden said on the day of the Guillen announcement.
Said Wilkerson earlier this season: "Nothing of any interest is going to come along until there's a new ownership group. It's just better for me to not think about it now. I think if I keep performing, it's common sense. It'd be exciting [for this group] to stay together and grow together."
Schneider, too, says he would like to see the team retain its nucleus.
"I can understand the position they're in. They've said, `Hey, you're one of the younger guys on the team, but we just can't pull the trigger now [on a long-term deal].' As a player, what can you really say?"
Says the catcher: "It's no secret who the guys are they want to lock up. It's the arbitration guys; it's the guys you see playing every day."
The club's relatively tight budget also affects its ability to pick up talent from other teams.
The Nationals insist they are not completely hamstrung. Despite their constraints, they were able to tell Guillen when he was acquired from the Los Angeles Angels in the offseason that "the intent was not one year and out," Bowden said.
The team knows it needs to be able to live up to such statements if it wants to build for the future. "We want to keep these guys together," Bowden said.
Club president Tony Tavares said MLB gives him the flexibility to operate effectively, at least in the short term.
"We don't need to ask baseball for permission to do solid business deals," Tavares said recently. But he knows he can't expose future owners to lengthy lucrative contracts. "Common sense tells you to wait," he said.
Keeping the core together may not have seemed so important after last season in Montreal. After all, the team lost 95 games.
But this year the Nationals are in first place and had won 15 of 17 games as they opened a series last night against the Texas Rangers. Suddenly, they are a hot property.