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Thomas Boswell: Out of the Nationals' Mess Comes Progress

Assistant general manager Mike Rizzo, center, drew praise from Nats President Stan Kasten for relocating the team's operation in the Dominican Republic.
Assistant general manager Mike Rizzo, center, drew praise from Nats President Stan Kasten for relocating the team's operation in the Dominican Republic. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Friday, February 27, 2009

VIERA, Fla.

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For the past two weeks, Washington's baseball team has made the wrong kind of "national" news. But crisis causes change. For the Nats, humiliation may even force progress.

On Thursday, the Nationals began to address their distress. The right people were fired. José Rijo and José Baez, who were canned, were responsible for the Dominican academy that has been a complete embarrassment to the Nats this spring.

Out of this mess, the right man has been given more authority. Assistant general manager Mike Rizzo drew praise from Nationals President Stan Kasten for relocating the Nats' entire operation in the Dominican Republic -- from one baseball complex to another -- in a 72-hour whirlwind of logistical, legal and leg work.

"We've replaced all the staff and coaches. We're relocating to a new complex. We're out of there," Kasten said with the kind of relief that usually accompanies release from a large, gray state institution with barbed wire on top of the walls. "These [Dominican] problems have held us back for two years.

"We designated Mike to lead this project. Normally, a change like that might take a month, three months. You don't do it on the fly. We sent Mike to the Dominican on Tuesday. I said, 'Okay, Mike, you have three days.' He did it all."

Rizzo will be back here on Friday to take bows. Doesn't that sound like he's going to be the Nationals' next general manager? Or at least interim GM? Rizzo came to Washington from Arizona, in part, because it was widely assumed that he'd eventually be the successor to the more flamboyant but less Kasten-congenial Jim Bowden.

Where does Bowden stand now? Before the Lerner family and Kasten ever arrived in Washington, Bowden built the Nats' presence in the Dominican with his old friend Rijo and Baez as his lead men. He bragged about it as an example of what he could contribute to the Nats. This was his baby. Now, it has been thrown out. Plus bath water.

Bowden has a .480 winning percentage and one postseason appearance in 15 years as a GM. He's not Branch Rickey. He oversaw four wasted years in the talent-rich Dominican, as well as who knows how much lost reputation within the sport for the Nats. If the team drafts Stephen Strasburg with the No. 1 pick this summer, does it want Bowden across the table from him?

Bowden told his usual absorbing baseball stories by the batting cage on Thursday. He has his blood enemies, but he bleeds the game. Yet, even talking the sport, his expression was grim. Grizzled, respected Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland came over to give Bowden a public he's-no-leper hug. Nobody knows the timetable. But everybody knows how this story ends.

In what can only seem like a bitter twist to Bowden, the '09 team that has his fingerprints on it, may be so much improved -- within sight of downright respectable -- that there would have been credit to share.

In the past two days, the Nats have sent out four young potential starting pitchers -- John Lannan, Shairon Martis, Collin Balester and Jordan Zimmermann. They've pitched eight scoreless innings, allowing only one hit and two runners over the minimum. Sure, it's early. But in one of his innings on Thursday, Zimmermann faced Carlos Guillén, Magglio Ordóñez and Miguel Cabrera and, on eight pitches, seven of them strikes, fanned the first two, then got a first-pitch dribbler to shortstop.

Everybody here, starting with Manager Manny Acta, is praising the addition of Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham to the lineup and Scott Olsen to the rotation. Dunn signed, in part, because of his career-long Bowden connection. Olsen and Willingham came in a trade for rookie Emilio Bonifacio, who was acquired last summer for reliever Jon Rauch. So, in effect, Bowden traded Rauch for two front-line players.

Baseball's sense of humor can indeed seem warped. Or, perhaps, old sins just take a long time to catch up.

"I'm excited when I look at this lineup. I hate to use the 'if' word, but if we can stay anywhere close to healthy, I think we can score a lot more. A hundred more runs? I really think we can do it," said Acta, who knows that 100 more runs is probably 10 to 12 more wins before considering any improvements to the pitching. "All of this negative stuff, it is what it is. In a way, it is good. You want to lay low in the grass."

Acta's first five hitters in a 2-1 win over the Tigers on Thursday were Nick Johnson, Elijah Dukes, Ryan Zimmerman, Dunn and Willingham. The oldest two are 30. Four have had seasons with 23 or more homers; Dukes clearly could. Lastings Milledge and Jesús Flores, both good hitting prospects, didn't play. Austin Kearns, one year removed from being considered a pro's pro, can't get mentioned here. Neither can Dmitri Young, a career .292 hitter.

"Last year, we never had enough pieces for a [good] lineup," Kearns said. "Now, we have extra ones."

Sometimes franchises fall apart. But sometimes those pieces fall back into place, too. Right now, the Nats look like they are about one full year behind their original "plan" in 2006. That's not praise. But it's not perdition.

A respectable team -- with enough punch to be entertaining but with an unfinished young pitching staff -- was expected for delivery in '08 to make the opening of Nationals Park a tantalizing pleasure. Not a winning team, but a watchable one with hints of potential for the following year. Instead, Washington got a 102-loss disaster.

Now, the kind of team that should have been ready to inaugurate the new park in 2008 is probably in place for 2009. Lots of goodwill, and ticket sales, have been squandered because of that lost year of franchise development.

Sometimes the past must be erased before the future can begin. It's not often that you see the whole process taking shape on the same day -- and the first home game of spring to boot. Fire the proper people; elevate the right ones. Ease a key figure toward the door. See Dunn take his first swing and Zimmermann throw his first pitch for the Nats.

What engulfs the Nats these days seems like pure pain and embarrassment. And it is. But, mixed in, is progress.


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