If the Plan Pans Out, the Nats' Future Could Be Wow

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

This season, the Nats wanted an answer to a huge question: Beyond a few key young veterans, who among the players the team already controls could be core elements of a contender in 2010? A show of hands, please. Anybody? Or, beyond Ryan Zimmermann and a half-dozen others such as Chad Cordero and Austin Kearns, was the Nats' cupboard almost completely bare? Was the ex-Expos franchise virtually devoid of talent from RFK all the way down to a few high-profile infant prospects in Class A ball?

To find out the truth, the Nats slashed the budget and scrounged the depths of the game for cheap players with any glimmer of talent, then devoted this season to what amounts to six months of open tryouts. The risk: a joke team that might alienate fans. The reward: discovering diamonds, at almost no cost, that a blank-slate franchise never could unearth except with such a radical plan.

Early results are in. After almost a third of the season, the Nats have the same number of wins as the Yankees and had one more than the defending champion Cardinals. But beneath their recent determined surge toward mediocrity, there's even better news. The Nats are getting the answer to their larger long-term question. And it's better than anybody expected. Chalk one up for the Plan.

The Nats have five of the first 71 picks in next week's first-year player draft. Next offseason, they should start competing seriously in free agency with vast payroll space. Yet they're suddenly a team that's less desperate than many imagined possible.

"We have wants -- a big home run hitter and a top starting pitcher," pitcher Shawn Hill said. "But so many guys have played well this year that we really don't have that many glaring needs. Next year, we might not have a lot of key spots to fill."

Don't faint. Except for Zimmerman, the Nats lack star power -- the kind of ability that 18-year-old Chris Marrero, with 11 homers in May at Class A Hagerstown, or next week's No. 6 overall draft pick or a major free agent should someday provide. But at least 10 Nats who could be fine complementary players have emerged this season, or, like Hill, even become possible standouts.

Of the puzzle pieces that the Nats have discovered since they reported to Viera, Fla., for spring training, Hill may become the most important surprise. He's been hurt badly in the past, he's hurt some now and, like John Patterson, he may be a pitcher who always seems injured. But when he's healthy, he's an all-around athlete with a power sinker and the mound presence and savvy to be a 15-game winner. At best, he might rival a Brandon Webb or Chien-Ming Wang. At worst? At 26, don't even say it yet.

Jason Bergmann, 25, may be the biggest shock. Is he a bookend to Hill? It's far too soon to say. At times he's scuffled, been switched to relief and lost confidence. But in April, he found it -- consistent mechanics and command of four pitches that made him, statistically, the hardest pitcher in baseball to hit. In his last seven starts, his ERA was 2.18 and more hitters fanned against him than reached base. Nobody's that good. But when Bergmann returns from elbow inflammation, he still should be plenty good enough.

Suddenly, the Nats have three pitchers who might be able to hold down rotation spots if they stay consistently healthy. Patterson still looks miles away from his pre-surgery elbow strength. But who thought the Nats had young pitchers with quality stuff who could even start such a discussion. And that's without mentioning Matt Chico.

Last month, the rookie southpaw threw a pitch sideways over the Marlins dugout, wilder by far than any pitch Nuke LaLoosh threw in "Bull Durham." "Oh, he does that once in a while warming up," bench coach Pat Corrales said. "Then the next pitch is a strike." In his last seven starts, Chico has walked only 11. He battles, steadily improves and always has been durable.

Is Chico part of the future, too -- one of three promising starters ages 23, 25 and 26, in addition to Patterson? "We've got more pitching than we know what to do with," team president Stan Kasten said facetiously. "As I keep saying, things are working out quite well."

The high minors aren't utterly bare, with Joel Hanrahan and Emiliano Fruto at Class AAA Columbus and 6-foot-5 Collin Balester, 20, at Class AA Harrisburg. This winter, Kasten now hints, the Nats may be more interested in a power bat than a famous hurler. "Free agent pitchers can be expensive mistakes that haunt you for years," Kasten said. So the Nats may develop their own arms first.

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