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.
While pitching matters most, other Nats have provided pleasant surprises. Felipe Lopez is a much better second baseman than shortstop, maybe of all-star quality. At 29, shortstop Cristian Guzman's career is far from dead. Now hitting .256, you can play him or trade him. Either way, he's found money. "Those two are amazing around second base," Zimmerman said.
Given a full-time job, Ryan Church had more homers, RBI and extra-base hits entering last night than Alfonso Soriano in Chicago. "And I haven't even gotten hot yet," he laughed. Church can be a fourth outfielder for anybody and start for some teams. The season's biggest steal probably is catcher Jesus Flores, 22, a Rule 5 pickup who already augments Brian Schneider nicely. "A true talent behind the plate," Corrales said. In the bullpen, Jesus Colome, 29, may be a late-blooming power arm and Saul Rivera is steady. Finally, three pitchers -- Luis Ayala and starters Brandon Claussen and Mike O'Connor -- are due back in July.
There's plenty more, though with less impact. Dmitri Young can hit until Nick Johnson returns. Then he and fine utility man Ronnie Belliard probably will be traded to a contender in July for prospects. Billy Traber, Micah Bowie and Mike Bacsik all look like situational lefties or spot starters.
"Garrett Mock, who's healthy again, was the big piece in the Livan Hernandez deal," not Chico, Kasten said. "They could both end up in the rotation this year. . . . We have more pieces here already than almost anybody gave us credit for."
The biggest pieces, however, still are over the horizon. "The Braves are always much better when Chipper Jones is in the lineup," Kasten said. "His impact is disproportionate to his statistics, as great as they are." The Nats have no such player yet.
By next season, the Nats would prefer to add one or two free agents in the $5 million to $7 million range. And trades, even significant ones, now are possible with more depth of talent. At the very least, the whole Nats clubhouse expects a 30-homer bat under its Christmas tree. But the Hall of Fame-level, $15 million-a-year player -- the last piece of the puzzle, such as when Greg Maddux went to Atlanta in 1993 -- isn't going to arrive until the Plan is much closer to fruition. Bank on that.
For the next few weeks, until healthy pitchers return, the Nats remain in jeopardy of looking foolish, as they did in last night's 10-0 drubbing by the Dodgers. But the big question about this season probably has already been answered.
The stars, comparable to Zimmerman, that a winning team must possess will not arrive in Washington -- from the minors or other teams -- until the club plays in Southeast. But 15 or more of the franchise's other core players are either on display at RFK now or will be by midseason. The Nationals' future is arriving fast, and much of it suddenly is well ahead of schedule.