Makeover Solutions

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Nationals' season may have been a disaster to this point -- full of numerous injuries, mounting losses, federal investigations and dugout dust-ups -- but there still is time for something good to come of it. Here are practical ways to salvage what is left of the season:

1. Sign Barry Bonds.

Hear us out, folks. There's no good reason why this shouldn't happen and plenty of reasons why it should. The most offensive (as in, putrid) thing about the Nationals is their inability to deliver smart, professional, quality at-bats. And nobody does that better than Bonds. If one younger Nats hitter learns something from him about working the count and understanding the craft of hitting, it will be worth it. The main anti-Bonds argument -- too big a distraction -- assumes that would be a bad thing, in the context of a good team that could be unnerved by the circus atmosphere. This team could use a distraction. (Have you seen those TV ratings?) Set some ground rules: No entourage. No flaunting team rules. No indictments. If he breaks those rules, he's gone.

2. Fire Lenny Harris.

Great guy, bad hitting coach. Here are some career OPS figures for some of the Nats' veteran core players before Harris became their hitting coach on May 11, 2007, and since then: Austin Kearns (.820 career OPS before Harris, .722 since); Nick Johnson (.853, .846); Ryan Zimmerman (.806, .793); Felipe López (.737, .643); *Wily Mo Peña (.796, .651). That's too much regression by too many players. In time, Harris might develop into an excellent hitting coach, but he was never even a minor league hitting coach before getting the Nats' job, and he needs to put in some years down on the farm. (*Note: The cut-off date used for Peña is Aug. 17, 2007, the day he was traded to the Nationals.)

3. Release Felipe López.

The crimes: A .619 OPS at the all-star break (sixth-lowest among qualifying hitters). Countless groan-inducing instances of swinging at the first pitch when the pitcher couldn't find the plate with a telescope. (See the discussion of quality at-bats, above.) Terrible body language that telegraphs the fact he wants to be anywhere but here. López needs a change of scenery, and the Nationals need to be rid of him. A trade is unlikely, given his production. Releasing him means swallowing a little more than $2 million (a prorated portion of his $4.9 million salary), but it would feel so good.

4. Name Zimmerman Captain.

Getting the FOTF (Face of the Franchise) signed to a long-term deal remains a crucial issue for the Nationals, made more complicated by Zimmerman's injury and declining production before he got hurt. But naming him the team's captain would raise the stakes for both sides in the contract negotiation, in a healthy way. It also would (hopefully) banish any doubts Zimmerman might have about wanting to remain in Washington -- how could he not have at least a few? -- and imbue him with a heightened sense of responsibility toward his franchise.

5. Show Us the Money.

Accurate or not, the Lerner family has developed a reputation as being stingy, but it would not be difficult to erase the label. One way would be to pay above "slot" money to a couple of the top draft picks with whom the team is currently negotiating over signing bonuses. We're not arguing in favor of going above MLB's recommended slot money on all of them, because you don't want agents thinking you're an ATM machine. And the signing of second-rounder Destin Hood was a good start. But the first-, third-, fourth- and fifth-rounders remain unsigned. Pick one or two of them, including first-round pick Aaron Crow, and show the world you're serious about winning -- and not a bunch of cheapskates -- by getting them signed.

6. Promise to Raise Payroll.

Nothing unreasonable here, Stan Kasten. Hey, we're down with "The Plan" to build through the farm system. But the Nationals have been here almost four years now, and there has been very little progress at the major league level. The natives are getting restless. Here's what would go a long way toward restoring the fans' faith, and it wouldn't be a huge financial leap: Come out publicly and vow to raise the payroll to the major league median -- which is currently about $80 million -- by 2010.

7. Trade FOUR Veterans, Replace With Prospects.

Goodbye, Jon Rauch. Goodbye, Tim Redding. Goodbye, Ronnie Belliard. Goodbye, Paul Lo Duca. (Or perhaps Austin Kearns, Odalis Pérez, Aaron Boone, and/or Cristian Guzmán. Yes, even him.) Hello, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann (7-3, 2.96 ERA, combined, in Class A and AA). Hello, closer-in-training Zech Zinicola. Hello, late-blooming outfielder Leonard Davis. Hello, unheralded righty Craig Stammen, with your 88-to-27 strikeouts-to-walks ratio at three levels this year.

8. Pick Up Manny Acta's Second Option Year.

So we've discovered this year that Acta isn't perfect. So what? He's still one of this franchise's biggest assets, and you can be certain the New York Mets are wishing they had never let him get away a couple of years ago. Acta's contract has a team option for 2009 that already was picked up, but the one for 2010 is still hanging out there. Why not exercise it -- unless you think he's not the manager-of-the-future here?

9. Show The Fans SOME LOVE (Not Just The Rich Ones).

Slash ticket prices for the season's final homestand. Throw in a $25 gas-station gift card when fans buy a four-pack mini-plan, as other teams are doing. (We're aware of the "Go Metro!" emphasis, but fans can still take Metro and pocket the gas cards.) Make players sign more autographs. Et cetera.

10. Get Rid of THAT GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE SEACREST.

For the uninitiated, the Nationals have a young, chipper, Ryan Seacrest- wannabe, named "Clint," who serves as stadium "emcee" during Nationals games. Only three problems: He's annoying. This isn't "American Idol." And fans hate him.

-- Dave Sheinin


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