By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Many think that Stan Kasten is crazy or blowing smoke when he claims that his team is "way ahead" of the Braves franchise he rebuilt in the late '80s and transformed into a dynasty. I've been hard on the Nats president for the decision to field a low-budget team that may lose 100 games this season. Have the Nationals no fear that, after a 20 percent drop in attendance last season, they'll alienate even more fans? Will a new park in '08 really erase all sins?
However, Kasten is correct on one crucial point that, in time, may trump all others. The Nats are far ahead of his old Braves in assembling a core of young veteran players who could become a contender within just a few years.
"I've been down this road before. I don't expect everybody to agree with our approach. I don't have a problem with their skepticism. But we are much further along at the major league level than we were in Atlanta. There is no comparison. However, we're behind at the minor league level. The Braves had a better farm system. But we're going 100 mph to catch up," Kasten said as the Nats prepare for pitchers and catchers to report to training camp today.
How can Kasten talk bravely when his starting rotation is so barren that the Nats have invited 37 healthy pitchers to camp in Viera, Fla.? Perhaps no staff in recent history has had so little insurance against bad luck. Yesterday, the Orioles lost Kris Benson for the season to injury. If the same happened to "ace" John Patterson, coming off a one-win season, would the Nats become the first major-league team to forfeit games in the middle innings? What does Kasten see that others don't?
A glance at history shows that Kasten simply feels he's reliving his Atlanta days, but on fast-forward. In '87, the Braves lost 92 games, just as the Nats lost 91 last season. By mid-1988, old-school manager Chuck Tanner was fired, much as Frank Robinson was shouldered out the door here. The Braves accepted that they would be atrocious in '88. And they were, going 54-106. No pitcher won 10 games or saved 15. No hitter had 25 homers or 80 RBI. Atlanta was a Class AAA team.
However, there was one vast difference. On Opening Day, the '88 Braves did not have a single established player on their roster who, just three years later, would be part of Atlanta's '91 World Series team. Zip, zero. Only two obscure '87 rookies, Tom Glavine (2-4) and Ron Gant (two homers), were even on the horizon as prospects. By the end of '88, one future star (John Smoltz) and two decent infielders (Mark Lemke and Jeff Blauser) had shown up. But Glavine and Smoltz were just kids, a miserable 9-24 that year. After all those 106 defeats, Atlanta still couldn't point to a single rock-solid core player for the '90s.
Now, look at the Nats. Their starting pitching is atrocious. And, granted, nothing is as vital as your rotation. But the rest of the team is credible. To build a contender, you need 16 key players -- eight everyday regulars, five solid pitchers and three top relievers. Hard as it is to believe, Washington already has seven of those puzzle pieces: Ryan Zimmerman, Chad Cordero, Nick Johnson, Patterson, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Brian Schneider. Braves in early '88: zero. Nats to start '07: seven.
That's why Kasten says, "I've never been more excited to go to spring training." He knows that, because the rotation is wide open, as well as two outfield spots, the Nats have a kind of "free" summer to try to unearth a couple of unexpected core players. For Nats fans, that search for diamonds in the rough will be the main fascination of the season. Can swift Nook Logan, already a highlight-show fielder, be a sound enough switch-hitter to win the center field job? Can Ryan Wagner, the steal in last summer's Kearns-Lopez trade with Cincinnati, become a high-quality reliever?
And what about those talented but flawed fellows fighting for left field? Alex Escobar, one of the most injured players of his generation, hit .356 in 33 games last year. Ryan Church, Mr. Overlooked, has a career .808 OPS, not far behind Zimmerman's mark of .836. Why aren't Escobar and Church a natural platoon waiting to be combined?
Of course, the larger and more worrisome question is whether any of the 36 pitchers not named Patterson can win even nine games. Okay, do we hear eight? Manny Acta might settle for a couple of live bodies who can match the 9-12 of Tony Armas.
This is where the Nats' stewardship, from ownership down, has stumbled. No team should hold open auditions for four rotation spots. You run the risk of fielding a team that's a farce. Wasting money on just one mediocre, innings-eating free agent would have been penny-foolish but pound-wise; the Nats should have incinerated $5 million in each of '07 and '08 on a pitcher who wasn't part of their long-range plan for the sake of appeasing, and pleasing, the skeptical fan base.
That's history. So, send in the clowns. "Branch Rickey said, 'Quality out of quantity,' " Kasten said yesterday. "I know that 37 pitchers is a funny number. But every pitcher we're bringing to Viera has some intriguing feature of interest in his career history. The more pitchers we look at, the more we improve our odds that one of them will be that guy."
Unfortunately, Stan, you need four of 'em to turn out to be "that guy." So, start sifting the drifters. Young Beltran Perez has poise, Shawn Hill savvy and Mike O'Connor moxie. Tim Redding and Jerome Williams had 10-win seasons once upon a time. As a prospect, Jesus Colome threw 100 mph. Jason Simontacchi pitched winter league ball on Mars. Billy Traber is left-handed, tall and once got a base hit. Ex-Red Brandon Claussen can walk -- although he has a shoulder injury and can't throw until midseason.
Almost all of them can be awful and it won't matter in the long haul. Not if just one of them has a miraculous recovery from arm surgery or some obscure southpaw becomes the next Jamie Moyer -- a journeyman with no fastball who one day figured out the art of pitching. Six months of sins will be forgotten if Matt Chico, the crucial chip in the Livan Hernandez deal, comes up in July and is half the pitcher that Smoltz became after the Braves got him in the same kind of trade for Doyle Alexander in '87.
Kasten sees all the parallels. He knows how many moves still lie ahead in the chess game of trying to build a champion. The Braves got Charlie Leibrandt, whose 15 wins helped them to the '91 Series, for long-forgotten first baseman Gerald Perry. They stole a bargain-basement free agent, Terry Pendleton, who immediately won the NL MVP award in '91.
"We didn't sign our first major free agent, Greg Maddux, until '93. And we'd already been to the World Series twice," Kasten said. In Washington, he won't have to wait so long. The budget will allow him to join the free agent hunt after this season.
Unless some rule change negates the need for starting pitchers, the Nats will probably fall somewhere between bad and sad this year. But that's no reason to turn our eyes from Viera this week. The present may be dark, but the future's getting clearer.
"We don't yet know the identity of the players who will win 90 to 100 games here," said Kasten, invoking the mandatory optimism of spring training. "But a lot more of them are already on this club now than was the case in Atlanta.
"I suspect we'll be a good team sooner than anybody expects."