Paying the Price For a Plan

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, May 10, 2007

Stan Kasten is an idiot. Admit it, that's what you want to scream. The Washington Nationals' president gambled that his team's luck wouldn't be too bad this season. That way, despite a payroll purge, he might avoid having a historically awful team. So, what happens? John Patterson is injured again. Chad Cordero blows half his saves. Nick Johnson is still out indefinitely. Ryan Zimmerman hasn't had a meaningful RBI the whole season. And those are supposed to be the Nats' best players. Instead, they've all been anchors.

Nice work, Stan. So, this is The Plan? What's the guiding concept here? Are the Nats trying to alienate the very fan base that tempted the Lerner family to spend $450 million for the team and lured the District into a $611 million gamble on a new stadium? Every day, as his roster of discount vagabonds implodes, losing 25 of 34 games, threatening to make a run at Worst Team Ever, Kasten's supreme confidence that his scheme is "ahead of schedule" looks more ridonkulous. And if you doubt it, just ask him.

"When we were building the Braves [in '88], I told Ted Turner, 'Every day I am going to be the village idiot on the talk shows and in the newspapers. So, get used to it.' " That year, the Braves lost 106 games, 13 fewer than the Nats' current breathtaking pace. "Now we're building here," Kasten said. "I'm back in my village idiot phase again."

Before we moan about the rotten Nats and take up the village idiot refrain for Kasten and GM Jim Bowden, we should evaluate the hand this franchise was dealt when it arrived in '05.

That first Nats team went 81-81, drew big crowds and provided a thrilling season. What if that entire 40-man roster at season's end had been kept, with every player re-signed. Also, include every player in the Nats' minor leagues at the time, plus the castoffs the Nats have picked up for peanuts since. What would the Nats look like now? Surely they'd be better, right? Not so. Except forstill-dependable, old Livan Hernandez (3-1, 3.20 ERA in Arizona), the Nats haven't subtracted a single player who would improve them now or in the future. Everybody else who's gone is old, unproductive, overpaid or all of the above.

Jose Vidro, now a Seattle DH, can still slap-hit but can't play second base anymore. Jose Guillen (.258 as a Mariner) wouldn't start over Ryan Church. Outfielder Preston Wilson is hitting .219 in St. Louis. Tony Armas Jr.'s ERA in Pittsburgh is 7.94. Also gone are Darrell Rasner, a decent Yankees pitcher, reliever Hector Carrasco (5.71 ERA), backup catcher Gary Bennett (.281 in St. Louis), infielder Jamey Carroll (.184 in Colorado) and Padres fourth outfielder Terrmel Sledge (.233). You can't find the rest of 'em with a GPS.

In contrast, the Nats have added two young regulars, Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez, and picked up four decent prospects, including Matt Chico, Ryan Wagner and minor leaguer Emiliano Fruto. The Nats netted two fairly valuable draft picks -- as compensation for Alfonso Soriano (acquired for total-bust-in-Texas Brad Wilkerson). The Nats also saved $30 million a year for future free agents. That should provide two or three offseason stars for '08 and '09. Cash in hand still buys proven talent.

If we're candid, we'll probably conclude that the Nats were doomed to a period as the NL's worst team before they could rebuild. Such a conclusion, however, only partially soothes the aggravation of waiting 33 years to endure a 9-25 team.

The Nats did have one other option. They could have kept Hernandez, who was pitching well and adamantly wanted to stay. For moderate money, the barely sought Steve Trachsel, who won 15 for the '06 Mets, plus an additional bat, could have been bought. How much would that help? Some, certainly. But building goodwill with new fans has value, too.

"I know you don't understand the concept that 'Money once spent is gone forever,' " Kasten said, "but it is true, nonetheless. If you waste millions now then you don't have it later when it can help win a pennant."

Kasten's grand plan overlooks one disturbing problem. If he's right and builds a winner in fairly short order, Nats fans will forget, or at least quickly forgive, whatever happens in '07.

But what if Kasten is wrong? What if he, Bowden and their scouts blow the draft selections that are crucial to The Plan? What if the first few crucial free agent signings blow out their arms or get old in a hurry? Can you say "Carl Pavano"? What if, in five years, Washington still has a losing team, a ballpark that's no longer brand-spanking new and Kasten is simply a smart guy who couldn't make magic happen twice?

In that scenario, he still has his Braves memories. But what happens to baseball in Washington? The Nats' local support may have shallower roots than the stunning attendance of '05 would indicate. Generations grew up here without the sport and the local media, through nobody's fault, still knows far more about icing, goaltending and pass interference than the infield fly rule.

If you had to pick one person from the past 25 years to oversee the creation, from scratch, of a powerhouse franchise, it would be Kasten. Besides his obvious skills, he also has a baseball-size burr under his saddle.

For years, he's chafed that all those NL East flags only produced one World Series title. Kasten's motivation is not to be remembered as Mr. 1 for 14 in October.

Kasten's vision, which matches the Lerners' preference for slow, solid foundation building, is to suffer now, then win 950 games in a glorious decade. But is that what Washington wants? Nobody asked us. Stan's playing poker, and has gone "all in" by slashing payroll to $36 million, with our hopes as his ante.

Maybe Washington would rather have a competitive .500 team as soon as possible. Perhaps we'd settle for a thousand summer nights in a gorgeous park in Southeast with an entertaining team. And if a couple of world titles arrive someday, that would be gravy.

In one sense, this season is a lark for the Nats, a 162-game tryout camp. Yet watching such a precarious team, which may battle its way to being merely bad, but could collapse completely, is a gnawing worry. Kasten, Bowden and principal owner Mark Lerner work lunatic hours and seek nothing less than a jewel franchise. The sport, including Bud Selig, now assumes Washington is like any other top-dozen rich mega-market. Build a flashy new ballpark, promise to field a contender soon and 3 million fans a season will stampede the turnstiles to watch.

But none of these people, regardless of good intentions, knows this town. Or how alien, remote and forgotten baseball became for millions here during the third-of-a-century the game was gone. "They'll love us when we win," is the mantra. We'll see. If The Plan, so ideal in theory, fizzles in practice, will baseball regret squandering the glorious goodwill in the summer of '05 when the box seats bounced at RFK? Whatever the cost in wasted cash, I'd never have taken such a chance.

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