Nats trying to foster good will in D.C.

The Washington Nationals are focused on the present. They’ll deal with the future when that time comes.

The Nationals have struggled with a big decline in interest among D.C.’s sports fans since the 2005 season, their first in the nation’s capital after moving from Montreal. Intent on proving they can find success in a city where two other major league franchises failed, the Nationals are making a major investment this year without regard to the long-term impact.

First, they stunned the baseball world by handing out a seven-year, $126 million deal to outfielder Jayson Werth, a solid player, but also a guy who’ll be 32 on May 20, never has driven in 100 runs in a season and has had 500 at-bats in a season only twice, and 300 or more at-bats only four times.

They attempted to be a factor in the Cliff Lee bidding, along with the Yankees and Rangers. And they’re expected to make a concerted effort to sign Carl Pavano as a consolation prize if the bid to land Lee comes up short.

And they’ve done all this without trying to rework third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s contract and lock up the face of the franchise for another three or four years. If the Nationals eventually try to work out an extension with Zimmerman, the money being handed out to others undoubtedly will be a factor.

In fact, the Nationals were a bit concerned when the Rockies signed shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to a six-year extension that ties him up for 10 more years at $157.75 million. That also could hike up the asking price for Zimmerman, who has three years and $34.925 million remaining on his deal.

The biggest concern for the Nationals, and baseball as well, is the team’s ability to sell enough tickets to be stable by the time the Zimmerman situation becomes an issue.

The third time hasn’t been a charm for Major League Baseball, which saw the original Washington Senators become the Minnesota Twins in 1961, and the expansion Washington Senators turn into the Texas Rangers in 1972.

As hard as folks in the D.C. area campaigned for a third shot at a major league team, the support’s been disappointing for the Nationals, starting with problems they’ve had attaining even a decent television package.

The attendance has surpassed two million only three times: the first two seasons (2005 and 2006) and the first year in Nationals Park (2008). The Nationals have finished 13th or 14th in NL attendance in the each of the past four years.

To make matters worse, the team’s suffered 90-plus losses in four of those six years, including two 100-loss seasons, finishing in last place five times.

With that in mind, the Nationals are attempting to create good will with a strong showing this offseason, hoping it’ll parlay into a strong showing on the field and, in turn, strong ticket sales.

Until now, the Nationals’ focus has been on building a farm system, and they’ve consistently shown a willingness to spend whatever it takes to sign quality prospects, but the patience for developing from within has worn thin with a fan base that appeared skeptical almost from the start.

ANOTHER CHANCE FOR ATKINS?

Garrett Atkins, once a key factor in the Colorado lineup, is looking to rekindle his career, perhaps even with the Rockies.

Released by Baltimore last season, Atkins has had contact with teams in Japan, according to agent Jeff Blank. Atkins even had hope he might return to Colorado. But where that stands, now that the Rockies signed Ty Wigginton to provide a right-handed-hitting backup at first and third base, is uncertain.

"It’s a matter of the right fit and right opportunity to get at-bats,’’ Blank said. "The time off since the release by the Orioles allowed him to clear his head and get focused.’’

OVERHEARD

• Left-handed-hitting Brad Hawpe could be a possibility in Washington as a platoon partner for outfielder Michael Morse. Hawpe’s also a quality first baseman, although he’s had limited time at the position in the big leagues.

• Milwaukee made an inquiry about Pavano, but sources say the Brewers are a non-factor. They aren’t prepared to offer more than a two-year deal.

• Right-hander Elmer Dessens, 4-2 with a 2.30 ERA in 53 games with the Mets last year, is hoping to pitch another year, but waiting for teams to show interest.

• The final weekend of Spring 2009, the Rockies traded right-handed prospect Aneury Rodriguez to Tampa Bay for right-hander Jason Hammel, who was out of options. Hammel is now in the Rockies’ rotation. Rodriguez? He was left off the Tampa Bay roster and is a possible Rule V draft pick for the Rockies on Thursday.

• Family matter: Buddy Bell is head of the minor league system for the Chicago White Sox, and son Mike has a similar role with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Another Bell offspring, David, is manager of the Double-A Carolina Mudcats, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.