From Murray Chass in Tuesday’s New York Times.

Lest anyone has forgotten, Major League Baseball still owns a baseball team. Only the name has changed. They are now the Washington Nationals instead of the Montreal Expos. The Nationals won’t have a new owner – a real owner, an independent owner – until the start of the coming season, at the earliest.

That means the opportunity for conflict of interest continues to exist, and that conflict just might have reared its ugly head on Friday, when the Chicago Cubs traded Sammy Sosa to the Baltimore Orioles instead of to the Nationals.

The Orioles’ deal for Sosa isn’t complete, because Commissioner Bud Selig has to approve the amount of cash in the deal, which he will. The union said yesterday that it would approve a change in Sosa’s contract. Sosa also has to waive his no-trade right, which he will do, then take a physical.

But the Orioles are prepared to give the Cubs Jerry Hairston, a second baseman and outfielder, and two minor league players, and the Cubs are prepared to pay $15.5 million of the $25 million Sosa will be owed: a $17 million salary for this year, a $3.5 million severance payment and a $4.5 million buyout of an option year for 2006.

The Cubs, disenchanted with Sosa, will pay $12 million of the 2005 salary and the $3.5 million severance. When they were talking with the Nationals last week, they were prepared to pay even more of the total.

The Nationals would have needed a major Cubs contribution because they are under a strict $50 million budget. Selig has often said the Expos/Nationals face the same tough economic decisions as other teams, but the owners of other teams have the latitude to make exceptions.

For example, if Drayton McLane wants Roger Clemens to pitch for his team, the Houston Astros, he has the option and the freedom to pay him $18 million and exceed his budget (payroll). But the Nationals don’t have that option. If Major League Baseball has told them they can spend $50 million on their payroll, they cannot spend $52 million. It matters not that the Nationals’ revenue for 2005 is expected to be at least $100 million more than the Expos’ revenue last year.

So the Nationals don’t have the freedom to add Sosa at any cost, as long as they are already at or close to their limit, which the team president Tony Tavares says they are.

Let’s say that the Nationals had made a deal with the Cubs for Sosa. Jim Hendry, the Cubs’ general manager, declined to comment on Sosa developments. Tavares said what they had with the Cubs was “conceptual in nature.”

But whatever the Nationals had went no further, either because of money they weren’t allowed to spend or another element that could have been in play. The other element requires a suspicious mind, and right now, this mind is suspicious.

Major League Baseball needs to complete a deal with Peter Angelos, the Orioles’ owner, to satisfy his concerns about the Nationals moving into what he considers his team’s marketing and television territory. Bob DuPuy, baseball’s chief operating officer, has been negotiating with Angelos for months.

“There are items that have been resolved, but all are contingent on what we do with certain other items,” DuPuy said. “But to get into position to sell the team, we need to get the situation with Baltimore resolved so we can put a broadcast plan in place for the Washington team.”

The financial agreement, in which among other things baseball is expected to guarantee the value of the Orioles if the team is sold, is aimed at appeasing Angelos for placing the Expos in Washington. To take suspicion to the extreme, suppose baseball officials, knowing the Orioles wanted Sosa, made sure that the Nationals didn’t get him first.