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Nats' Route to the Bottom Starts at the Top

That hasn't happened in Washington.

What caused this disconnect? Why has Kasten rationalized constantly on the Lerners' behalf, shielded them and, perhaps without knowing it, been an enabler as they followed a discount method of ownership that he never practiced and which was far from the tune he sang, simultaneously, to Washington's ticket-buying fans?

There's abundant irony in the Nats' sins finding them out this season. Six months ago, after those 102 losses and with season ticket sales plunging, the Lerners had a reality check. Or their top execs finally forced the issue. Or both.

Kasten and then-GM Jim Bowden got ownership to sign off on a trade with Florida that would add $6 million to payroll. Then the pair took a stand, putting their whole weight behind an attempt to sign Mark Teixeira, whom Bowden called the perfect free agent. It was an if-you-don't-do-this-you'll-never-do-anything moment. Ted Lerner not only agreed but led the courtship enthusiastically.

Yet when the Nats' nine-year, $188 million offer didn't bag the slugger, the Lerners seemed to crawl back toward their financial shell. They waited until February and got bargain deals for free agents Adam Dunn (on pace for 51 homers) and Joe Beimel. But they lost a shot at an established starting pitcher, either Randy Wolf or Jon Garland. After Bowden resigned in March, Kasten took over negotiations with Ryan Zimmerman and got a five-year, $45 million deal done minutes before the star's Opening Day deadline.

The organization exhaled. Bowden, and his astronomical evaluations of players he'd drafted or acquired, was gone. The Lerners had listened to him, probably too much. For example, why spend $10 million a year for dependable free agent Aaron Rowand to play center field when Bowden could trade away two vets with millions in salary for Lastings Milledge, making $400,000, and convert him into a star in center? With the palace courtier Bowden gone, Kasten gained influence and named Mike Rizzo, a popular baseball lifer and son of a lifelong scout, as interim general manager.

So much for optimism. The losing started immediately -- 0-7, then 1-10. With no veteran leader in either the rotation or bullpen, rattled nerves led to a cascade of failure. A 2-9 May homestand begat an 0-6 road trip, including one game during which fly balls bounced off the gloves of all three Nats outfielders.

"Can you believe the things that happen to us? But it's going to turn around. Things are changing," Mark Lerner said.

Would he or his father be interviewed about the Nats' problems and, perhaps, those changes? "In time," he said.

This week, Kasten, the voice of the franchise, insisted that: "We are closer than most people think. Our offense is fixed. We are going to be even more active in this next offseason than we were last offseason.

"But the thing that lets me sleep at night is on this paper."

Kasten held up a scrap with a long list of young Nats pitchers, including Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Ross Detwiler, Shairon Martis, Craig Stammen, Scott Olsen and Collin Balester, as well as Stephen Strasburg, whom the Nats will draft with the No. 1 overall pick next week.

"This game is about starting pitching," Kasten said. "There is a quality rotation here on this list. We need to find out which ones they are."

Kasten believes this. But he also believed that Milledge, who didn't even show up on time for his own broken-finger surgery last month, and Elijah Dukes, who's been on the disabled list four times in a year, would be 10-season fixtures in the outfield.

Did the Nats actually bottom out last winter? Are we seeing the delayed comeuppance now for the previous 2 1/2 years? Or are the Nats, with the oddly fitted Lerner-Kasten combination at the top, a franchise that is systemically dysfunctional? Stay tuned.

"There have been too many attempts at a quick fix," Rizzo said. "This took a while to get broken, and it's going to take a while to repair."

The reasons for that damage, like any hopes for the future, start not with relievers, coaches or even managers. They start right at the top. And can only be fixed there.

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