The Nats' Puzzle: Assembly Required

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

It is midseason, and the Washington Nationals have welcomed 39 players into their clubhouse -- a roster-and-a-half's worth. Some have excelled, none more so than all-star Dmitri Young. Some have broken down, none more important than Shawn Hill, John Patterson or Cristian Guzman. Some have downright sputtered, none more so than Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Nook Logan. And some will presumably be added to the list -- from the injured Nick Johnson and Alex Escobar to a group of potential prospects as yet unseen by Washingtonians -- in the season's second half.

Put all those pieces together, and the Nationals are a last-place club. No shocker. Internally and externally, those were the expectations for 2007.

But with every opportunity Nationals officials have to watch this club -- both before the all-star break and again beginning tonight, when the second half starts in Florida -- there are calculations being made. Team president Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden are like kids staring at a jigsaw puzzle. The picture on the lid shows the finished product. The morass in front of them, spread across baseball's card table, contains the pieces, both close by and far-flung.

"And as you know," Kasten said, "we're always looking for ways to get more pieces."

That is what 2007 is about. The picture on the box cover shows the World Series trophy, the prize Kasten, Bowden and the ownership of the Lerner family so brazenly say is the only acceptable result. The task over the remaining 2 1/2 months: Determine what pieces already in the club's possession fit into that puzzle, and what is truly needed.

A likely last-place finish? Perhaps 100 losses? Grab a piece here, make it fit over there and shrug off the rest.

"Let's learn from this," Bowden said. "That's what growing pains are all about."

The one piece the Nationals believed they had in place before this season began was third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and the view on that -- both internally and externally, from scouts and executives with other clubs -- has not changed. Zimmerman, 22, is in his second full season, and his production at this point -- .253 average, 45 RBI, 13 errors -- is below what he would expect.

"They're asking a lot of him," one scout from an American League club said. "There's no place for him to hide, and his plate discipline has suffered."

The question as it pertains to Zimmerman is whether he becomes a .310 hitter or hits .270, whether he blasts 20 homers annually or 30, whether the fact he drove in 110 runs as a rookie in 2006 was a fluke or not.

"He has so much to learn," Manager Manny Acta said. "But he has great character, great makeup. He's going to be fine."

Acta is the next piece. Signed to a two-year deal to replace Frank Robinson last November, the 38-year-old from the Dominican Republic has club options for 2009 and 2010. Internally, the early returns are positive.

"That's the first and most important piece -- having the right manager going through the pain and suffering you have when you're developing a young team," Bowden said. "And certainly everything we thought Manny Acta could or had the potential to be, he certainly has shown that he's capable of doing it."

From there, though, the pieces get harder to identify, more difficult to shove into place. Kasten, who took over a year ago when the Lerners officially gained control of the club, continues to believe, as he reiterated last week, that "we're further along than I thought we might be." Others wonder how that's so.

"I keep hearing that, but I'm not sure what they're talking about," said one scout who covers the NL East regularly. "What guys are they relying on that they think will be primary players on a championship-level team?"

Which brings Bowden to a characteristic that he believes was a significant part of the first-half evaluation. "Under-performance," he said, "was a big story in the first half."

High on that list are Kearns and Lopez, both 27, both acquired in a trade with Cincinnati during the 2006 all-star break. The pair, though, has drained the offense this season, not helped it.

"That's the hardest thing to deal with," Kearns said, whose last home run came on May 21. Bowden, who touted the two as part of the rebuilding process last year and into the spring, said his evaluation hasn't changed because of one poor first half.

"They're still in their mid-20s, and I know they're disappointed in what they've done the first half, as all of us are at all levels," Bowden said. "But when you under-perform in the first half, it's not as important as people think because it's after 162 games that you look back at your numbers and see where you really were. . . . If there's a year where you're going to hit below your average, I'd rather have it be a year like this, in a year when you're developing, than in a couple years when you're trying to win."

Over the remainder of that year, there will be other questions about other pieces. Will Johnson, who hasn't played since breaking his right leg last September, return in time to prove he's ready to be a key contributor in 2008? Will closer Chad Cordero -- who has never blown more than seven save opportunities in a season, but blew six in the first half -- end up as the long-term closer, or will he be dealt? Will injured pitchers Hill and Patterson return and perform up to capabilities, a development that could determine whether they are pieces that fit or pieces that fall off the table?

The one area in which most observers agree the Nationals have improved is in the minor leagues, though at the lower levels. Within the last two weeks, Kasten has visited the team's two lowest minor league affiliates. Bowden, too, went to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League entry "with expectations," he said. "I was not let down when I saw literally a major league prospect at every position and on the mound."

Even if true, players in the GCL typically are teenagers still years from the major leagues. But Kasten and Bowden have long been adamant that such commodities, if other clubs agree with the Nationals' internal assessments, can be turned into major leaguers sooner.

"The point is they're not all going to play for Washington," Bowden said. "Their value to the big league club isn't necessarily four years from now, when they're ready. Their value could be a year from now or two years from now when maybe they're the piece to trade for the proven big leaguer that helps you win."

The second half of 2007, too, will involve trying out new pieces. There is an excellent chance that in September, the Nationals' rotation will consist of either 21-year-old right-hander Collin Balester, currently at Class AA Harrisburg, or 22-year-old lefty John Lannan of Class AAA Columbus -- or both. Bowden, in fact, has to restrain himself from picking up the phone and calling his minor league people "almost on a nightly basis."

"As painful as it is on certain nights," Bowden said, "we want to be patient."

That, the Nationals believe, is how the puzzle will fit together over time. So watch the number of players who trot through the clubhouse rise above 40 to 45 or 50. But understand that the only number that matters, for 2007, is the number of pieces that are collected and fit into place, creating the first section of that pretty picture on the front of the box.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company