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Identifying The Core

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By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Two years ago to the week, the Lerner family and Stan Kasten took control of the Nationals. It's easy to lapse into the pleasures of the May moment with the Nats winning nine of their past dozen games. Why not just enjoy the modest rebound of a team that, after losing 15 of 17, has regained the low-budget respectability of its past two seasons?

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Why not? Because that's not the yardstick by which the Nationals measure themselves or the standard to which they should be held. When new ownership arrived, it defined its goals clearly: assemble the dozen core players who define every 90-plus-win team. Judge us, they said, by our ability, through the draft, trades, free agents and players already on hand, to assemble four fine starting pitchers, a top closer and setup man, as well as a true heart of the order and at least three other fine offensive players who add defense, too.

By that measure, recent results border on alarming. In '06, the Nats already seemed to have eight core parts of a superior 2010 team: Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Zimmerman, Chad Cordero, John Patterson, Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns, Felipe López and Luis Ayala.

Now, Soriano and Patterson are gone, lost to free agency and injury. Cordero's shoulder is a huge worry. Instead of maturing, Kearns and López have regressed slightly. After missing entire seasons with injury, Ayala and Johnson seem healthy but haven't quite returned to their earlier excellent form yet. And on Sunday, Zimmerman, hitting .217 and fuming with frustration, was given a day off -- before an off day -- to clear his head for 48 hours. The shoulders of a 23-year-old can carry only so much.

Of the big eight in '06, only Zimmerman's future as a major star remains unquestioned. The Nats assume that Kearns (.212), Johnson (.211), the dependable Ayala and perhaps López are important parts of their future. But that is no longer a given. They're spoken of differently now, not as rising talents but as veterans who'll suffice.

What useful pieces have developed since current ownership appeared? Jon Rauch is now a solid reliever, Shawn Hill shows promise when healthy and Lastings Milledge may qualify as "core" someday, though that's unproven. Prospering 30-year-old pitchers such as Tim Redding (3.20 ERA) and Odalis Pérez (3.18) are more likely to be trade-deadline material for more prospects than starters for the Nats in an NLCS sometime after 2010.

Hopes for John Lannan, Wily Mo Peña, Elijah Dukes as well as all that potential in the farm pipeline, like catcher Jesús Flores, is cheerful speculation. Fun for fans, but not like saying of your big club roster, "Look at all the pieces of the puzzle we have solved."

Few baseball people are more loath to count unhatched chickens than Kasten, yet he's practically giddy these days, chattering about the Nats' farm teams (fourth-best collective record in the minors) and the rapid elevation to Class AA of hot pitchers Cory VanAllen (0.66 ERA at Potomac), Jordan Zimmermann and reliever Zech Zinicola.

"We're getting to the end of 'patience' fast. We're just around the corner," Kasten said, quickly trying to withdraw the remark as overly cheerful. Yet it accurately reflects his optimism and serves as a fair counterbalance to the current lack -- aside from Ryan Zimmerman -- of elite, durable, young building-block players at Nationals Park.

When watching the Nats the rest of the year, only one number matters on closing day: not the win total, but the number of core players who've been identified. Or eliminated.

"It's the long-term that matters to this franchise. And it's a cruel game. So, the weeding out will continue" at the big-league level, Manager Manny Acta said. "Who is part of our core? And which guys make us say, 'Lets move on and find somebody else.'

"This season is about identifying people for the future. We're very happy with our minor leagues now. But we don't have a full team coming up."


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