This is an article from the April 6, 2009 issue
There's a surplusof players at some spots but a dreadful shortage of talent and hope
ON HISpenultimate day as Nationals general manager, Jim Bowden leaned against thebatting cage, surveyed the field at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., througha pair of dark sunglasses and, speaking above the metronomic thwack of bat onbatting-practice ball, gave a muted assessment of the state of his franchise:"We'll go as far as the young guys can take us." But when Bowdenresigned two days later—he deemed himself a "distraction" to the clubin the midst of a federal investigation into his possible role in an allegedbonus-skimming scandal—suddenly his shades assumed a rosier hue. In his partingstatement he said, "The team, the fans, the media can now turn all of theirattention [to] the baseball field for the Washington Nationals and theirupcoming 2009 championship season."
That's not quitethe team he's bequeathed to the District of Columbia. Not even close.
For better andmostly for worse, this is Bowden's club, and what he leaves behind is this: acore of young, mostly uninspiring pitchers; a glut of first basemen (five) andcorner outfielders (seven); a scandal that forced the shutdown of the team'sDominican academy; and a .439 winning percentage over the last four seasons.Bowden's goal last year "to win more than we lose" was catastrophicallyout of reach.
Interim G.M. MikeRizzo, who earned a solid reputation for his work in helping build theDiamondbacks' fertile player development program, inherits a roster that isindeed young, if not all that promising. Nowhere is that more evident than onthe pitching staff. Of the 19 pitchers on the 40-man roster, only one (relieverSaul Rivera) is older than 27. And by virtue of his 31 starts more so than his9--15 record in 2008, lefthander John Lannan, 24, is the staff's nominal ace;likewise, the closer, Joel Hanrahan, 27, had only nine saves. A fourth or fifthstarter on most other clubs, Lannan at least recognizes why he has suchelevated status in the rotation. "I'm a second-year guy," he says."It's just that no one's really around that was here last year, so I guessI'm the carryover."
Team presidentStan Kasten previously presided over the Braves' run of 14 straight divisiontitles, which was defined by great pitching. "You can buy one pitcher, butyou can't buy a rotation," he says. "We've taken these last couple ofyears to develop pitchers." Righthanders Collin Balester and ShaironMartis, both 22, each made a few starts for Washington last year and should bejoined by the organization's best prospect, Jordan Zimmerman, a second-roundpick in '07 who has shot up through the farm system (15--5, 2.74 ERA in threeminor league stops). "I came up with the Dodgers, and I watched ChadBillingsley all the time," says Hanrahan. "[Zimmerman] seems like aclone of him. He's got a power arm, and he isn't afraid."
Zimmerman,however, is merely the franchise's interim Next Big Thing. The Nationals holdthis June's No. 1 draft pick, almost certain to be San Diego State righthanderStephen Strasburg, whom some scouts have gone so far as to call the greatestprospect of all time. National bailout indeed—if signing him isn't toodifficult. Strasburg's rumored asking price is at least $10 million andWashington failed to corral its first-round pick last year, righthander AaronCrow of Missouri.
Washington's woesin '08 were exacerbated by a plague of injuries that forced manager Manny Actato use 122 different lineups. Only three players appeared in more than 106games, and none surpassed 140. Three of the most troubled spots were firstbase, leftfield and rightfield, and Bowden overcompensated by signing Adam Dunnand adding Josh Willingham to a group of outfielders that already includesElijah Dukes, Willie Harris, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pe√±a. Dunn's power, atleast, is a welcome addition to a middle of the lineup that did not have asingle 20-homer bat. Willingham, on the other hand, is just another middlingplatoon player who will join Harris, Kearns and Pe√±a as pinch hitters and,perhaps eventually, trade bait.
While Bowden wentdown touting a championship and Lannan says the team "aspires" to matchthe example of the 2008 worst-to-first Rays, more likely for the '09 Nats isanother season of futility, probably two.
CONSIDER THIS AModest Proposal ...
Now that JimBowden is no longer in charge, the Nationals have to commit fully to a youngteam that is designed to win, at the earliest, in 2011. That means trading theveterans on whom Bowden foolishly showered multiyear contracts, such as NickJohnson, Cristian Guzman, Willie Harris and especially Ronnie Belliard. The33-year-old Belliard (left) has the most value of the bunch, a good-hittingsecond baseman who has experience at all four infield spots. Sending him to thecontending Cardinals makes sense for both teams. St. Louis needs a stopgap atthird base in the absence of Troy Glaus and insurance at second base in caseSkip Schumaker doesn't work out there (and the early returns haven't beenpretty). Washington's thin farm system would benefit from some high-risk Cardsprospects such as outfielder Daryl Jones or shortstop Peter Kozma.
Career battingaverage of Adam Dunn with runners in scoring position. While the Nats firstbaseman has struck out more than once every three at bats in that situation, healso has hit 65 homers in 969 at bats with runners in scoring position—roughlyone HR every 14.9 at bats, which isn't far off his overall rate of one per13.9. And his .416 on-base percentage with runners in scoring position is 35points higher than his career OBP.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
THIRD SEASON WITH NATIONALS
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
|ADAM DUNN [NEW ACQUISITION]||¬†||LF||¬†|
|JOSH WILLINGHAM [NEW ACQUISITION]||¬†||OF||¬†|
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
|LH||Scott Olsen [NEW ACQUISITION]||160||8||11||5.0||1.31||4.20|
|RH||Daniel Cabrera [NEW ACQUISITION]||209||8||10||4.8||1.61||5.25|
|RH||Jordan Zimmerman (R)*||169||7||2||8.7||1.20||3.21|
|RH||Shairon Martis (R)||215||1||3||10.4||1.45||5.66|
|LH||Joe Beimel [NEW ACQUISITION]||286||5||0||10.5||1.45||2.02|
NEW ACQUISITION(R) Rookie
*Double A stats
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)
NOW AT SI.COM/VAULT
EXCERPTED FROM SI
April 25, 2005
For now, the Nationals can bask in theirflavor-of-the-month popularity, an effect that tends to wear off. Three of thepast four expansion teams suffered double-digit drops in per-game attendance intheir second seasons. But Washington can add to its fan base by playing thekind of winning baseball the town hasn't seen for generations. On Thursday,after President Bush had opened the new era with a high, hard one from thepitching rubber, the Nationals prevailed primarily because a righthander who'dfled oppression in Cuba threw one-hit ball into the ninth and a Mexicannational without U.S. voting privileges smacked a double, a triple and a homer.What a country!
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