The Nats' Trial by Fire

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, May 13, 2006

Hard times answer hard questions.

So, though the process may be painful at times, the rest of this season will provide the Nationals with an enormous amount of stress-tested information on which to base the personnel decisions that will help define the organization's future.

If the Nats were meandering pleasantly in the middle of the NL these days, tempers might be better and fans happier. But the reality of the team's deepest needs might also be easy to disguise or even ignore. However, when your record is 12-24 and only teams such as the minor league-level Marlins, Pirates and Royals have worse records, then the truth will come out.

Last season, Washington was introduced to the Nats. This year, everybody, including the Lerner family and President Stan Kasten, will become thoroughly educated about them. Now is probably a poor time for major personnel decisions. But what happens over the next few months, and how people react to these hard times, will decide who remains a National next season.

If Livan Hernandez has suddenly gotten prematurely old at 31, we'll find out. If a fitter Jose Vidro is really a premier hitter again, there will be six long months to document it. If Alfonso Soriano wants to play the outfield in Southeast someday, or if he's desperate to skip town, we'll find out by July. If the pitching rotation assembled by General Manager Jim Bowden is a season-long disaster, then the Lerner-Kasten jury will render a verdict in due course. And if the Nats take a few more 4-1 leads in the 11th, and lose 5-4 (as they did Thursday) because Frank Robinson can't find a way to manage three outs before his bullpen allows four runs, then he'll presumably be a Nats senior adviser next season, not the boss on the bench.

The new owners announced themselves last week with one key word: "Patience." You don't write that mantra above the stadium entrance, then fire the GM or manager, or trade half of the team's best players, by the Fourth of July. If you want stability and consistency over a period of years, then you don't arrive on the scene and immediately run your baseball team as though you were playing gin rummy -- constantly discarding people in key roles just to change your cards.

The face of the Nationals will certainly change as the summer progresses. That's just how the game works. For example, as soon as Hideki Matsui broke his wrist Thursday, Soriano's name was suddenly on every list of possible future Yankees left fielders. By the July 31 trade deadline, and perhaps long before, the Soriano situation will be resolved. However, considering such individual moves -- on a case-by-case basis -- is far different than a policy of "blow this team up and start over." Some teams, like the Tigers, have to become 100-loss awful before they have any realistic chance to become extremely good. The view here is the Nats aren't in this category. They're an extensive multiyear renovation, not a gut-and-tear-down project.

In particular, there's no rush to fire a manager with more than 1,000 wins (albeit with more than 1,100 loses) or a GM with a dozen seasons of experience (but a DUI charge hanging over his head.) Robinson and Bowden are well-known baseball commodities. They're somewhere in the middle of the pack. Neither has ever had great material to work with, but neither is an unappreciated genius, either. Bowden has more trade ideas than Jim Cramer has hot stocks. But he's also in need of adult supervision. At least now Jim will have to run the deals past "Mr." Kasten.

Robinson is a natural leader and often connects with star players -- Jose Guillen and, perhaps, Soriano -- that others might not reach. But he can be rough on the arms of young pitchers. John Patterson's current trip to the disabled list may be a kind of Pitcher Protection Program. After warming up but then waiting out a 2-hour 19-minute rain delay on April 21, Patterson pitched seven scoreless innings. Yet with a 3-0 lead, Robinson sent him out to labor in the eighth as the lead was blown. Patterson's sore forearm problems recurred and he won't pitch again until June 1 at least -- a loss of 40 days. You can't manage worse.

The Nats/Expos have seen enough chaos in recent years without blowing up what little front office and clubhouse continuity actually exists. If you want to see what disaster looks like, just fire the guys who have held this shoestring operation together and bring in a new midseason brain trust. Despite their flaws, there's a reason Robinson and Bowden have a manager of the year and an executive of the year plaque. You can do worse.

Though, off the evidence of this season's first 36 games, it's also true that you can't do a whole lot worse.

The Nats' current plight has one perverse compensation. The team's pitching is so threadbare that every arm in the organization -- and even ex-Nat Zach Day, who was discarded by the Rockies -- has been offered a chance to audition. If the team's games sometimes seem like a tryout camp, that's because they are. Before last night's game in Atlanta, Bowden said that the team would continue to carry 12 pitchers. "I'd rather have 14 pitchers, but you can't do that," he joked bleakly.

Baseball is full of hurlers who once won 10 games somewhere, but then got hurt or were forgotten. The minors are stocked with crafty soft throwers who never get a chance -- not even one big league game -- to show what they've got. If you could run enough of these so-called bums out to the mound, night after night, sooner or later, you'd find a gem. But what team can afford to take such abuse merely to rummage the remainder bin?

The Nats can. And have to. Their staff is now a home for anyone who can walk and throw a sinker at the same time. Guess what? In his last two starts, Day has allowed one run in 14 innings. Toothpick-thin southpaw Mike O'Connor, the kind of kid who might not be allowed to start even one game in the majors, has gotten three of them in a row -- and has a 2.12 ERA.

Will both be gone in a month? Or will the pressure of hard times produce an unsuspected diamond? Such tough questions will be posed continuously in these rough times for the Nationals. The answers will keep coming all summer. Like 'em or not.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company