By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007
The teams the Washington Nationals welcome to RFK Stadium this week -- the New York Mets last night, the Philadelphia Phillies beginning today -- are embroiled in a pennant race that appears headed to the season's final week. Their focus is on the here, the now, on everything that October might bring.
The Nationals' focus -- both before and after an 8-4 loss to the Mets last night at RFK, one in which New York temporarily righted itself after two miserable showings here -- has been a bit different all season. While Manager Manny Acta has molded his group into something very few predicted -- a competitive outfit that has played .500 baseball since mid-May -- the eyes of the front office, and thus much of the fan base, have been squarely on the future, one that includes a new ballpark opening next spring.
That future will presumably include an improved roster as well, one that will be more consistently competitive with high-payroll teams such as the Mets, who got three RBI from third baseman David Wright en route to ending a five-game losing streak. But as an offseason filled with both possibility and potential upheaval approaches, Nationals President Stan Kasten reiterated yesterday that he does not believe spending significant money on free agents is the best way to build a ballclub.
"Signing free agents prematurely moves you further away from your goal, not closer," Kasten said. "I believe that deep in my heart."
The message is consistent with what Kasten and the team's owners, the family of Theodore Lerner, have said since they took over the club in 2006. Thus, it would appear fans' notions of landing one of the marquee center fielders -- Atlanta's Andruw Jones, Minnesota's Torii Hunter or Philadelphia's Aaron Rowand -- are far-fetched, though some within the ballclub believe that's precisely what is needed. During an afternoon roundtable with reporters, Kasten said he expects payroll to rise in 2008, and he left all doors open. Instead, Kasten will likely ask his general manager, Jim Bowden, to take on his "Trader Jim" persona of old.
"There's no obvious help ready to come in here for next season," Kasten said. "We know we need to acquire players. There's no mistake about that. We want to add players to this team next year. Perhaps it's free agency, but more likely, I think it would be through trades, either with veterans on the major league level or with prospects. We are not averse to trading prospects."
Kasten and the entire organization are excited about the players the Nationals have drafted and infused into the lower levels of the minor league system over the last 18 months. Yet almost all of those players are at least a couple of years from appearing in the majors.
"We're certainly not where we need to be," Kasten said. "Here's the saddest thing for me. We can't look at [Class AAA] Columbus this year and say, 'Wow, we can't wait till next year because that guy's going to be a rookie of the year candidate.' That's still not there for us."
So in order to pull off the kinds of deals that might help the 2008 roster, the Nationals might have to dip into a crop of young pitchers in which the club believes wholeheartedly. Though players selected in this year's draft can't be traded until they have been in the system for one year, there are candidates from the 2005 and 2006 draft classes that could be dealt. Bowden said he turned down trades this summer because he declined to part with young arms.
"As shocking as it is to say this, we have a surplus of minor league pitching," Kasten said. "We're not eager to trade any of it yet," though that could change, he added.
The Nationals also believe this season has served to identify some candidates who might fill out a rotation in the future. Last night, left-hander Matt Chico made his 29th start of the year, more than any other rookie in the National League. Though he was touched for five runs in 5 1/3 innings -- an outing that lifted his ERA to 4.74 -- Acta believes Chico, who had never pitched above Class AA before this season, benefited from the experience.
"We came into the season looking for two starters out of our system," Acta said. "We feel like with [Shawn] Hill, [Jason] Bergmann and Matt Chico, we have three guys who we shouldn't be afraid to throw them out there again next year."
Last night, though, Chico allowed the Mets to peck away, giving up single runs in the second, third and sixth along with two in the fifth. His assessment: "It was a rough one."
But he also understands that this is part of the process the Nationals have in place.
"It's been a learning experience," Chico said. "I just hope I get a chance to start in the rotation next year."
Trailing 5-3 in the sixth, the Nationals had runners on first and second with nobody out. Mets Manager Willie Randolph replaced starter Mike Pelfrey with reliever Jorge Sosa. For the first time all week, a Mets' move worked perfectly. Sosa struck out pinch hitter D'Angelo Jimenez on three pitches, then got Nook Logan -- who went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts -- to ground into a double play. Threat over.
"Sosa won the game for them," Acta said.
With that, the Nationals' players turn their attention to causing the Phillies the same kinds of problems they caused the Mets. And the front office kept its attention right where it has been all along: On next year, and beyond.
"Do not for a minute think I'm happy with where we are," Kasten said. "We have very far yet to go. We absolutely do. We recognize that more than anyone."