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Homegrown Talent Is Essential, but Free Agent Field Also Deserves Attention

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Now and for the next couple of years, the Washington Nationals will jabber constantly about the improvements in their farm system, the high value of elite draft picks and their obsession with developing their own young stars. Fans may want to scream in frustration.

We waited 33 years for a team. Now we have to wait Lord knows how long for Chris Marrero and Colton Willems, both still 18, and Zechry Zinicola -- as well as players whose names aren't even known yet -- to work their way up from the Vermont Lake Monsters to the Hagerstown Suns to the Harrisburg Senators? Each day we're supposed to exhume box scores off the Internet from Rookie, A and AA ball to see who may get called to AAA Columbus? For this we waited a third of a century?

Actually, yes.

If we waited this long, we can wait three more years. Because that's how long it'll take. But it better not be more. Circle April 2010 on your calendar. That's when we'll find out if the Nationals know how to rebuild the dilapidated Expos farm system.

It's also the time frame in which we'll know whether the Lerner organization grasps that, these days, a fine farm system is never enough. You can't trust your fate to guessing the future of a bunch of kids, no matter how smart your scouts are. Over the long haul, nothing beats a fine flow of talent -- except having Yankees or Red Sox money. But in the near term, as the Nationals make up for years of Expos neglect, they simply must buy their way back into playoff contention at the major league level. And they can.

At least one major free agent signing a year is essential if the Nationals intend to be one of the game's elite teams. Why be a rich team in a major market with a publicly financed $611 million park if you don't use your advantages to crush middle- and small-market teams? Unfair? Absolutely. That's what's so great about it. The Senators could never do it. The Nationals can -- and must.

In fact, even as the Nationals sign more scouts, minor league instructors and prospects worldwide, they should be ashamed if they don't acquire a star a year, at least, simply by writing a fat offseason check. They've got the money, or soon will, that's for sure. Almost in silence, the '07 team has just undergone one of baseball's most drastic salary purges. The Nationals brass conveniently emphasize that their motivation is to "trade veterans for prospects" -- you know, to bolster the minors.

But, in reality, of the 25 highest-paid Nationals players last season, 19 are gone now -- at a reduction of $39 million in payroll. In all, 10 players making $1 million in '06 have disappeared. To replace them, the Nationals did not add a single expensive player. Instead, it's all rookies and retreads. So, when dollars are needed to sign a 16-year-old prospect in the Dominican or a major free agent in '07, '08 or '09, the Nationals have no excuses.

"There are players we didn't pursue in the offseason because, as Branch Rickey said, once you spend money, it's gone. You can only spend it once," team president Stan Kasten told me. "But you do intend to spend it?" I asked. "Yes," he said.

So, watch the minors. Whatever they produce, the big club won't have to provide with huge contracts. If both function as they should, with the Nationals able to raise payroll by $50 million a year over three years, then 2010 should include a pennant race.

Last year's World Series is often cited as an example of how homegrown stars are essential to contemporary champions. The Cardinals' title was built around slugger Albert Pujols, catcher Yadier Molina, Game 1 World Series winner Anthony Reyes and budding slugger Chris Duncan -- all originally drafted by St. Louis. Closer Adam Wainwright and starters Mark Mulder and Jason Marquis came in trades for J.D. Drew and Danny Haren.

The AL champion Tigers seem to illustrate the same truth -- sign 'em, coach 'em up and then either play them or trade them for what you need. Young staff ace Justin Verlander and 100-mph reliever Joel Zumaya, as well as key players such as outfielder Curtis Granderson and third baseman Brandon Inge, always have been Tigers.

However, making a fetish of "growing your own" can be taken too far. And the Lerners should not listen very long to anyone who tells them that you reach the World Series inexpensively. You can't become good and stay good without developing core stars yourself. And shrewd trades always are vital, too. But, in this era, you are unlikely to become great without spending tens of millions on free agents. At best, no matter how well you draft, teach, study stats, select for "high-character people" and swindle your rivals in deal-making, you still hit a frustrating glass ceiling, like the Athletics and Twins, unless you fork over the bucks.

Even Kasten's Braves realized when they needed to go outside the organization to sign Greg Maddux. If they'd spent just a little more on their lousy bullpens, maybe they'd have a couple more World Series wins to go with those 14 straight division titles. And the Atlanta fan base, tomahawk-chop fanatical for years but disappointed so often in October, might not be as blase today.

The '06 Cardinals free agents included Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter, shortstop David Eckstein, NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan, outfielder Juan Encarnacion and reliever Jason Isringhausen. In recent years, the Cardinals also picked their spots to trade for high-dollar stars like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, who drastically increased their payroll.

The Tigers, and every other recent champion, have done the same. Detroit's free agents, while never the most expensive available, have been a steady stream of established big names starting in '04: catcher Ivan Rodriguez, slugger Magglio OrdoƱez, southpaw Kenny Rogers and closer Todd Jones.

So, the next time General Manager Jim Bowden talks about how first-round draft picks such as third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and reliever Chad Cordero will be followed by a flood of similar low-budget, high-talent kids, shake your head and say: "That's great. But tell Ted to get out his wallet, 'cause it isn't going to be enough." For every top player the Nationals develop, they'll probably have to buy a roughly equal number of free agents. And they'll have to re-sign their Zimmermans, too.

How long will it take for us to know whether the Nationals' key draft picks -- like the sixth overall pick this year and, in all likelihood, one of the three highest overall picks in '08 -- will be stars or disappointments?

Probably not as long as most fans think. If you're good enough to be taken in the first 20 picks of the draft, then your talent is obvious. If you don't get hurt or flop, then you'll probably be in the majors at 21 to 23. And you'll play a lot in a hurry.

The single most fascinating aspect of the current Nationals club (widely predicted to lose 100 games) is the extremely high number of elite draft picks who already are on their team. Last season's Tigers had one player -- Verlander (second overall) -- who was taken in the first 20 picks. The Cardinals had two -- Mulder (second) and Carpenter (15th). Don't faint, but the Nationals blow that away.

The current Nationals have six players who were top-20 overall draft picks. They are projected to be true stars: Zimmerman (fourth), John Patterson (fifth), Austin Kearns (seventh), Felipe Lopez (eighth), Ryan Wagner (14th) and Cordero (20th). In slugger Marrero (15th) and pitcher Willems (22nd), as well as the high first-round picks they'll get in '07 and '08, the Nationals may have as much top-level talent in their system as most contenders. Depth in the farm system? Not yet. But that's improving already, too.

This summer, enjoy all the happy patter from the Nationals brass about the wondrous deeds being done down on the farm. But don't fall too deeply in love with the batting title of a Lake Monster or the shutouts of a Sun. On a franchise where so many players are being asked to help the major league team immediately, a lot of the Nationals' "player development" will actually be happening in National League games this season. A half-dozen promising players, who'd be in Class AAA if they were with the Mets or Yankees, will play extensively for Washington.

Shawn Hill, 25, and Matt Chico, 23, will be in the rotation and Wagner, 24, will be a key to the bullpen. If two of them clearly are part of the future a year from now, that alone might make the '07 season a success. The outfield will be a tryout camp with Chris Snelling, 25, Nook Logan, 27, Ryan Church, 28, and perhaps Kory Casto, 25. They'll get their best -- and perhaps last -- chance to prove they should still be Nationals in a couple of years when the fun starts. Catcher Jesus Flores, 22, a Rule 5 pickup from the Mets, may be special someday.

Lots of ardent fans in traditional big league cities make midsummer pilgrimages to the minors to see what's "down on the farm" at Pawtucket, Tucson, Nashville or Toledo. Meet a Mud Hen. See the future. In Washington, that won't be necessary. The elite draft picks such as Willems and Marrero are still too young to judge. The high picks of '07 and '08 haven't even been made. The Nationals' most important farm team will be playing at 2400 East Capitol St. this season. Just take a vacation to RFK.

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