Taking Different Positions

Felipe Lopez, right, with coach Jerry Morales, is one of the players Nats' management believes will be a useful part of a contending team.
Felipe Lopez, right, with coach Jerry Morales, is one of the players Nats' management believes will be a useful part of a contending team. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga and Adam Kilgore

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Washington Nationals expected to be this bad, and maybe worse, after tearing apart the roster in the offseason, making the future their only worry. Even after losses, players and Manager Manny Acta remain unburdened, knowing what happens in coming years is more important than what happens now.

The Baltimore Orioles expected to be much better after another offseason spent chasing the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, spending millions adding veterans and trying to avoid their 10th consecutive losing season. But tension has built as losses have mounted, and during a three-game sweep at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays, Melvin Mora and Jay Payton needed to be separated in the dugout. Also, Manager Sam Perlozzo's job security has been questioned.

The Orioles and Nationals will meet today, a pair of last-place teams with similar records achieved by way of drastically different standards and opposite goals. Baltimore has a $95 million payroll, 10th in the majors, compared with Washington's $37 million, which is 28th. The difference, to this point, has meant three games in the standings.

Baltimore and Washington have attacked the same problem -- turning a loser into a winner -- with divergent strategies. In part because the Orioles and Nationals face different challenges, they are proceeding differently, the former incrementally, the latter taking a step backward in pursuit of a leap forward.

"They seem like they're in different positions," one National League executive said. "The Orioles have been throwing money, or trying to throw money, at problems for years, but they're in that division with the two biggest payrolls in baseball. That's a tough position to be in -- and there's always the question of what the owner's input is, and how much he helps or hinders the whole process.

"The Nationals are new. You know [team president Stan] Kasten's reputation and track record, and [General Manager] Jim [Bowden] has been around a long time and works hard. But what you don't know is the ownership group. Will they be patient? Will they spend like they say they will? There's no reason to believe they won't follow through on their word. It's still a developing story, but I think people in baseball expect Washington to be a market that could be attractive."

In some ways, because the Nationals' problems appear deeper than the those of the Orioles, they are more easily addressed. The club entered the past offseason so far from competing for a division title that stripping the roster and taking a build-it-from-scratch approach was an easy choice, Kasten said. Plus, the introduction of a new ownership group -- the family of Bethesda real estate mogul Theodore N. Lerner -- provided more impetus for change.

"I didn't come in here to take an established team, with an established minor league apparatus that was already in its stadium and told, 'Stan, fix it,' " Kasten said. "That would've required a different plan. Here, we have a last-place team and the lowest-rated minor league system. The second half is a much, much bigger problem. How about a last-place team that isn't graduating real stars to the major leagues the next year? Oh my God. That's the position we found ourselves in."

Kasten and Bowden believe the Nationals' future to be brighter than this year's results indicate. There are players on this year's club -- third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, infielder Felipe Lopez and right fielder Austin Kearns, for instance -- who management believes will be useful components of a contending team.

Kasten also maintains that he believes the major league club is closer to contending than he initially thought when he arrived as president last July, when the Lerners officially took over the club. One reason: With the payroll now at $37 million and a new ballpark opening next season, the club expects to have revenue that will warrant raising the payroll -- perhaps through free agency, but also through trades or the international market. Kasten won't project payroll precisely, but he said, "The shock and awe of that jump is going to be big.

"The most important thing about this year, being at $37 [million] or $38 [million], is not to save money but to have it so low so that the jump we make next year has the biggest impact," Kasten said. "If I'm a team that's at 90 and has to go to 70, that's way, way different if I have a team at 38 that goes to 70. If both teams are at 70, which would you rather be?"

Like Kasten, Orioles Vice President Jim Duquette believes his team must complete a process before becoming a playoff team. But that is where their shared view stops. Rather than enduring abject failure to set up sustained success, the Orioles hope to improve yearly, beginning with their first better-than-.500 season since 1997.

The Orioles conducted a study this offseason to gauge where their next step should be after a 70-92 finish. They found only 14 percent of teams since 1990 that lost at least 90 games made the playoffs the following season.

"From our standpoint, it was always, realize there's a step-by-step process that you have to go through," Duquette said. "You can't consider yourself a contender until you get yourself to .500. And so, we've talked about .500. Once you get to .500, and you're in that range, that's good enough to be in any kind of playoff chase and allows you to do things -- make a trade or another signing of a free agent or two to get you to the next level."

The Orioles have tried reaching .500 by identifying holes, and then trying to patch them. The glaring weakness last season was the bullpen; the Orioles spent $42 million this past offseason, spread out over three seasons, on Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson, all relievers. All four were proven veterans, but the risk in acquiring them has become apparent. After leading the league in bullpen ERA briefly, Baltimore's relievers have combined for a double-digit ERA in May.

The Orioles hope to become more selective signing free agents as their farm system deepens. The key, Duquette said, is to develop major league talent, because it is cheaper and would allow the Orioles to splurge for what Duquette sees as their largest missing pieces: a powerful bat for the middle of the lineup and more starting pitching.

Duquette, along with Mike Flanagan, has been active since arriving -- 18 of the 25 Opening Day roster spots were filled by players not in Baltimore before 2006. Eight everyday players -- including Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera, Ramon Hernandez and Brian Roberts -- are signed to contracts that end in 2009, but that doesn't mean the team's core is settled.

"No, I wouldn't assume that," Duquette said. "We're constantly trying to get better. [No] player is untouchable. You have to go in with that assumption. Every player is tradeable. But some you're less likely to trade than others. We consider any person, any trade that can improve the team. We're certainly not going to be reckless about it. But who knows? It may require trading one of those that's signed through '09, or two, maybe, for us to get younger. I wouldn't necessarily say we're locked in to every one of those players through 2009."

By then, both the Nationals and the Orioles expect to be winning. The difference is how they think they will arrive there, where each wants to be right now and the amount of urgency in each dugout.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company