Nationals still searching for identity
Updated: December 8, 2008, 5:35 PM ETBy Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com
The Washington Nationals have gone through numerous incarnations since their big move across the border from Montreal in 2005.They've been a scrappy, overachieving club under manager Frank Robinson. They've handed out oversized checks to Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman, and provided a supportive environment for Dmitri Young to briefly revive his career. They've dressed in cramped, decrepit quarters at RFK Stadium and reveled in their plush, new environs at Nationals Park, with its breathtaking view of the U.S. Capitol from the upper deck. They've been hailed as a potential marquee franchise in the making, only to spend four of the past five seasons holding up the bottom of the National League East. And now it's come to this: Four years after adopting a new nickname and a new identity in a new city, they're still not sure what they want to be when they grow up. As the hot stove season gets into full swing, the Nationals have an air of futility about them. Fresh off a 59-102 season -- the worst in the majors -- they have lots of work to do to become competitive and rekindle interest in the Washington market. Yet obstacles abound. For starters, the Nationals play in one of baseball's most competitive divisions. They're up against the world champion Phillies, the Mets and their new ballpark, the Braves and their tradition and knack for developing young talent, and the Marlins, who have a front office that's always adept at changing course on the fly. While the Washington organization has pledged unswerving commitment to the draft and the concept of building from within, there's not much help on the way. The Nationals are only six months removed from failing to sign their top draft pick, Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow, who opted for a deal with the independent Fort Worth Cats. So where do the hapless Nats turn for inspiration? Try Colorado and Tampa Bay, where the Rockies and the Rays went from afterthoughts to the World Series the past two autumns. "I think if we add a couple of pieces and continue to develop our young guys, you never know when things will happen in baseball," manager Manny Acta said. "Over the last two years, with the Rockies and Rays, baseball has shown you that when you think you're in, you're out. And when you think you're out, you're in." At the moment, the Nationals are the embodiment of "out." Washington's offense ranked 28th in the majors in runs and homers this past season, and the pitching staff posted the game's 24th-best ERA. Along the way, the Nats endured losing streaks of nine games in April, nine games in July and 12 games in August. Injuries were a significant factor in the losing. Closer Chad Cordero and eight of Washington's nine Opening Day starters spent time on the disabled list. Guzman, the team's shortstop and leadoff man, was the only National to make it through the season unscathed.
Amid the gloom, the Nationals took solace in the stray silver lining. Lastings Milledge, who was supposed to play a complementary role in the second or seventh spot in the batting order, spent 107 games total in the third, fourth and fifth spots and hit a respectable .268 with 14 homers and 24 stolen bases. Lefty pitcher John Lannan, an 11th-round pick out of Siena College, amassed more quality starts than Derek Lowe and A.J. Burnett. Catcher Jesus Flores made a positive impression (that .296 on-base percentage notwithstanding), and Steven Shell, Mike Hinckley and Joel Hanrahan showed promise in the bullpen. Three weeks ago, general manager Jim Bowden made a trade that elicited mostly positive reviews. In exchange for second baseman Emilio Bonifacio and two minor leaguers, the Nats acquired starter Scott Olsen and left fielder Josh Willingham from the Marlins. Upon introducing the two players at a news conference, Bowden conceded that the organization was "embarrassed" by the events of 2008. Here and there, the Nationals are making their way into a hot stove blog or rumor mill. They've been mentioned as a potential destination for Mark Teixeira, a Severna Park, Md., native, and Burnett, who lives in Baltimore in the winter. But many industry observers -- from front office people to agents -- have a hard time seeing a fit, conceptually or economically.
Joel Auerbach/US PresswireLastings Milledge is one of the young players the Nats will be relying on if they want to improve from four last-place finishes in five seasons.
Washington Nationals (2008)
In addition, Dunn's price might be dropping in a down market. Two NL officials wondered whether Dunn would command even a Jose Guillen-caliber, three-year, $36 million deal from a team other than Washington. "[The Nationals] might have to pay a bit of a premium for him to go to a team that has not won recently," one of the executives said. The Nationals also have explored every conceivable trade option, from Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, James Loney and Joey Votto at first base to Zack Greinke in the pitching market. But it's a long shot when it comes to whether they have the stockpile of young talent required to make such a deal. Baseball America, which ranked Washington's farm system 30th in the game in 2007, placed the organization ninth overall this past spring. The best bet for a quick breakthrough is pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who is 15-5 with 205 strikeouts in 187 innings in the minors. Infielder Chris Marrero and pitcher Ross Detwiler, while highly regarded, might take a little longer to develop. The scouts love outfielder Michael Burgess' potential, but he's a classic boom-or-bust type of player. Burgess, 20, has 35 homers and 222 strikeouts in his first 670 minor league at-bats. Justin Maxwell, another outfielder with big tools, just can't seem to stay healthy. In spite of his 132-191 record with the Nationals, Acta has displayed admirable calm and poise amid the turbulence. The Nationals recently overhauled the coaching staff, retaining only pitching coach Randy St. Claire while bringing in former big leaguers Marquis Grissom and Pat Listach, and former Cubs, Padres and Mariners manager Jim Riggleman. It's no secret in baseball circles that club president Stan Kasten has chafed over his role in the hierarchy. In late September, both Washington newspapers, the Post and the Times, described Kasten as frustrated with his lack of organizational clout. According to the Post, Kasten has had difficulty coping with the Lerner family's "hands-on, tight-fisted management style." One baseball executive who's friendly with Kasten told ESPN.com that the Nationals' president was "miserable" in his current role. Kasten declined an e-mail request for an interview but recently insisted that he'll be back with the organization in 2009. Nevertheless, his name has been bandied around in Toronto in conjunction with the Blue Jays' vacant CEO position -- in part because of his friendship with interim CEO Paul Beeston. Bowden has his detractors, but his energy and willingness to make moves will never be called into question. "He's non-stop, thinking and looking for players wherever he can find them," Acta said. "I've found that out being around him the last two years. He's 24/7 baseball." Heaven knows it will take long hours at the office to change the mood in Washington. On a positive note, the Nationals are looking forward to the June draft and an opportunity to select San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg, a Scott Boras advisee who could be seeking a payout in excess of $10 million. The Nationals might lack talent, short-term hope and any semblance of industry buzz. But at least they have their dreams. Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireIt's unclear whether the Nationals can really afford free agent Mark Teixeira.