Nats' Route to the Bottom Starts at the Top

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, June 5, 2009

This week, the Nationals fired pitching coach Randy St. Claire. Traditionally, that means the manager has about a month to get his team to shape up or he's gone, too. The Nats have purged their bullpen twice, banished an outfielder to the minors, released a starting pitcher and, after 102 losses last season, are on pace for 117. That'd be just three defeats off the record set by the infinitely more amusing '62 Mets. And this, incredibly, is from a team that is third in the National League in runs per game.

When problems go this deep, the causes should be sought at the top, not the bottom. Accountability doesn't lie with a pitching rotation full of rookies or a bullpen built on tissue-thin résumés and prayer. In the past, the Nats have had injury excuses and cheerful long-term timetables to shield them. But now the blame -- and the solutions, if any -- surely must lie at the top with the billionaire Lerner family and team president Stan Kasten.

The Nats announced a grand plan in 2006, a D.C. version of what Kasten and the Braves did in Atlanta from 1988 to 91. Yet the franchise didn't follow the plan, or even come close. By last year, Kasten told friends acerbically, "There's more to a plan than the first sentence."

That first sentence was, in essence: Focus on building the farm system. Lose for a few years, get high draft picks then reap a talent harvest.

The rest of the plan, however, was just as important but required money up front: gradually sign free agents and make trades for vets, even though it increases your budget.

The degree to which the Lerners ignored Kasten's precepts, as well as his inability to pitch his ideas and his unwillingness to take a use-me-or-lose-me stand, is stunning.

In summer 2006, Kasten envisioned that by 2009, the plan would be obvious. The team would sign free agents before moving into a new park in 2008. Every team does. With new revenue coming, it improves the product. I wrote it all down.

That was then. What happened?

For a blueprint of broken promises, look at how the '91 Braves were built then compare that to the '09 Nats. Until four months ago, the Nats had not signed a free agent of significance. After a 2006 trade for Felipe López and Austin Kearns that cost the team $27 million in contracts to the disappointing pair, the club stopped making deals that sharply increased the payroll. Popular star Alfonso Soriano was not re-signed. Last year, the Nats did not even sign their No. 9 overall draft pick, part of their core philosophy. There are rationales for every decision. It is the totality that paints a different picture.

In contrast, the '91 Braves had free agents at first base (Sid Bream), shortstop (Rafael Belliard), third base (Terry Pendleton, MVP), center field (Otis Nixon, 72 steals), left field (Lonnie Smith), closer (Juan Berenguer, 2.24 ERA) as well as (Neon) Deion Sanders. The rotation included Charlie Leibrandt, acquired in trade then re-signed as a free agent. In the '91 World Series, the Braves even used a (inexpensive) free agent reliever named St. Claire, the pitching coach the Nats fired this week.

From 1993 to '96, the Braves added all-star free agents Fred McGriff, Greg Maddux, Marquis Grissom and Denny Neagle, all at elite-player prices.

Get the picture? Kasten's plan called for judicious steady spending, consistent with expected revenue.

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