Embarrassment Averted, Nationals Can Now Plan the Future

Rule 5 signee Jesus Flores could be a mainstay at catcher.
Rule 5 signee Jesus Flores could be a mainstay at catcher. "That kind of power, that kind of arm -- it's a blessing," General Manager Jim Bowden said. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

PHILADELPHIA -- History won't look back on the 2007 Washington Nationals with any particular emotion. They will be neither ridiculed nor revered, and nationally, they likely won't be remembered, because while there are sections in the Hall of Fame for World Series champions and record setters, there is no special spot carved out for "Teams Predicted to Lose 120 That Didn't Even Lose 90."

Rarely has mediocrity been deemed so glorious, because this year was set up for possible embarrassment, and club officials instead consider it encouraging. "We've made huge strides," General Manager Jim Bowden said. As the season comes to a close here Sunday, some of the strides will be seen in the standings, which reflect a team that was supposed to come in last by a mile sitting in fourth, the first time the Nationals will be out of the cellar since the team moved to Washington.

Several things had to go right for that to happen. The team hired a first-year manager, Manny Acta, whose boundless enthusiasm shouldn't overshadow his sharp instincts for the game. They found pitchers in corners of the baseball world few knew existed, spruced them up and got them to compete, discovering a couple who might be parts of a rotation in years to come. They enter Sunday's game having played above .500 -- 64-63 -- since May 11. And they got a renaissance season from first baseman Dmitri Young, who overcame personal and legal problems to be embraced by the fan base, become an all-star -- and sign a two-year extension with Washington.

"It was a great year," Young said, "for a lot of reasons."

But as the Nationals approach their most important offseason since they arrived in Washington -- one in which they will simultaneously try to improve their roster and move into a new ballpark -- there are serious questions that must be dealt with, both on and off the field.

Attendance at Nationals games fell from 2.73 million in 2005, the first season after the team moved from Montreal, to 1.96 million this season; the average crowd at RFK Stadium ranked 25th of 30 teams. According to the Sports Business Journal, ratings for the team's television broadcasts on the fledgling Mid-Atlantic Sports Network are the lowest in baseball. And several players identified as cornerstones -- infielder Felipe Lopez, outfielder Austin Kearns, catcher Brian Schneider among them -- did not produce offensively as the club had hoped.

Still, the ownership group of the Lerner family -- headed by Bethesda real estate magnate Theodore Lerner and run by his son, Mark, and sons-in-law Robert Tanenbaum and Edward Cohen -- are bullish on the future.

"We're excited," Mark Lerner said recently. "We think the ballpark is going to be such a great new addition, and Jim and his staff have done a great job on the baseball side. We're moving forward."

Because whatever the Nationals did in 2007 was really about 2008 or 2009 -- "Our goal this year wasn't so much about the standings, but what we can do to build a champion," team president Stan Kasten said -- the team went into this season needing tangible improvements throughout their system. Bowden believes the most significant might have come in June's draft, when they took three left-handed pitchers -- high schoolers Josh Smoker and Jack McGeary as well as Missouri State's Ross Detwiler with the sixth pick overall. The Lerners made a statement about their commitment to player development when they gave McGeary a $1.8 million signing bonus to spurn a strong commitment to play college ball at Stanford.

"To get three top-of-the-rotation starters in the same draft is remarkable," Bowden said. "You could go 10 years without drafting two."

Bowden's excitement about the draft -- in which he also believes the club got a steal in outfielder Michael Burgess -- also is a reflection of how far the farm system had to go. The trade magazine Baseball America ranked the Nationals' system as the worst in baseball before this season; Bowden believes it will rise to the middle of the pack before next season.

"We're very, very fortunate with what we've been able to do with player development and scouting," Bowden said.

On the major league roster, Bowden believes there are easily identifiable areas of encouragement.

Last December, the club selected 22-year-old catcher Jesus Flores, who had played Class A ball in the New York Mets' system, in the Rule 5 draft. The move seemed minor at the time. In order to retain Flores, the Nationals would have to keep him on their major league roster for the entire season, and there was no guarantee even Washington -- willing to stash a player who might hurt the club in the present but help in the future -- could do that.

"Omar Minaya reminded me that no one had ever successfully taken a Rule 5 catcher," Bowden said of the Mets' general manager. Bowden said the two laughed about it.

Now, though, Flores appears to be Schneider's heir in Washington. He impressed the entire organization by the way he handled his limited playing time. When the 30-year-old Schneider's four-year, $16 million contract expires after the 2009 season -- he will earn $4.9 million in both 2008 and '09 -- the Nationals believe Flores will be more than ready.

"It's hard to get catching prospects today unless you're drafting them in the first round," Bowden said. "To get a young one like that -- with that kind of makeup, that kind of power, that kind of arm -- it's a blessing."

Acta and Bowden both believe they have put together useful parts of a rotation for coming years. Though there is no apparent ace, right-hander Shawn Hill enters the offseason needing only to prove his health -- a significant question given surgeries on both his right elbow and left shoulder. Right-hander Jason Bergmann and lefties John Lannan and Matt Chico have, as Bowden said, "opened some good competition" for next season. Chico, the rookie the Nationals decided in spring training could mentally handle a season in which he might be knocked around, finished 7-9 with a 4.63 ERA after Saturday's victory. Kasten has reminded Bowden that as a rookie, Tom Glavine -- one of Chico's heroes -- went 7-17 with a 4.56 ERA.

"You look at the composure guys like Chico and Lannan showed," Schneider said. "That'll help them for next year, because they've been through it before."

The one piece the Nationals had in place before the season was third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who statistically did not take a step forward. Heading into Sunday's game, his average (.287 in 2006, .268 this season), on-base percentage (.351 to .331), slugging percentage (.471 to .461) and RBI (110 to 91) all were down, while his errors (15 in 2006, 23 this season) were up.

But Zimmerman believes he "grew up a lot" this season. Friday was his 23rd birthday, yet he has two full seasons in the majors behind him, "and there's no place like here to learn." He continues to grapple with being the one player other teams pitch around, but his place on the roster and in the clubhouse are secure, and one offseason development could well be signing Zimmerman to a long-term contract.

"You feel more comfortable, because you've been around for two years now, and a lot of the people in here have been with you for two years, so you feel like you can say things," Zimmerman said. "When the younger guys come up now, I kind of feel more comfortable telling them what to expect and how to act and help them learn. I think I've grown up a lot more in that aspect than I have on the field."

Acta, too, is pleased with how his players have taken to his directives. At the beginning of the year, he had to convince them that taking a strike in the ninth inning down by three or more runs -- a situation that calls for base runners, however you can get them -- is the right thing to do. Now, he said they do it instinctively. Last year, they were statistically the worst base-running and fielding team in the National League. They have improved in both categories this season, cutting their errors from 131 to 109, giving away countless fewer outs on the base paths.

"I think we finally have convinced them," Acta said, "to play the game the right way."

Still, there is significant work to be done to the major league roster, because the Nationals will finish this season last in the majors in runs and there is no one in the system likely to fix that single-handedly in 2008. The vast majority of the Nationals' best prospects played this season either in rookie ball or Class A, meaning most are years from the majors. "We're not close to where we want to be," Bowden said.

Philosophically, Kasten prefers player development and acquiring talent through trades to signing free agents. He did, though, profess a willingness to be flexible. "We'll talk to everybody," he said.

The onus, though, is on Bowden to seek players wherever he can find them -- through trades, on the waiver wire, in his own system and, indeed, in free agency.

"You don't know when all of a sudden the market dies for a player, and all of a sudden you can get him at a rate you really want to do," Bowden said. "Sometimes the market doesn't bear out what people think it's going to, and opportunities arise."

How will history look back on the 2008 Nationals? It depends on how many of those opportunities arise, and how the Nationals handle them. There will be a new ballpark, new energy -- and a completely different set of expectations.

"We're ready," Schneider said. "We're ready to win."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company