Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Nationals Interim Issues Need Permanent Solutions

After a promising start in 2006, Nationals Manager Manny Acta faced insurmountable challenges during the 2009 season
By Tracee Hamilton
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Two microphones sat on the dais yesterday at Nationals Park. So, would the assembled media hear from Jim Riggleman and President Stan Kasten? Or Jim Riggleman and acting general manager Mike Rizzo? How about Jim Riggleman and the ghost of Walter Johnson?

Nope. In filed Rizzo and Kasten to take their seats behind the mikes, and suddenly we knew:

This was an interim news conference.

Kasten has declared -- with a straight face, I swear -- that the Riggleman era starts tomorrow. The Nationals' new manager -- hired early yesterday to replace the fired Manny Acta -- will have his own news conference tomorrow, presumably hunched over a microphone with the "interim" title strapped to his back.

Maybe Rizzo can help him carry it. After all, 50 percent of the dais at yesterday's interim news conference was interim -- Rizzo's still wearing the Scarlet I despite the recent trade for pepper pot Nyjer Morgan.

So what's up with the plethora of interims?

"I'm very uncomfortable with that," Kasten said. "I've strived my whole career [for] value, stability and consistency and I want to get to that here. We're not there yet. I think we're working toward that. Sometimes we encounter these unfortunate, unforeseen bumps in the road. But you're right, we need to bring stability here and I can assure you I'm doing all I can to get us there."

In fact, that was the purpose yesterday. It was less -- much less, as it turned out -- about Riggleman and more -- much more -- about the Nats reassuring the fans that they feel their pain and share their concerns and are taking steps to alleviate both. The team has reason to worry, given that many of last year's fans turned out to be interim season ticket holders.

So yesterday, instead of introducing Riggleman, the Nats issued an open letter to the fans, begging for patience. (Their supply is running low, now that they've fired the most patient man since Job.) The message seems to be: We feel worse about this season than you do. Which is probably true, but is about as comforting as the pre-spanking "this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you" that I dimly recall from childhood.

The fact is, it's growing increasingly hard to believe in The Plan when the major characters keep changing. If the 2009 season ends with the general manager and manager jobs still filled by temps, was the season a wash? And how many "wash" seasons do the Nats expect their fans to pay to see?

"I do think we're very close to realizing the fruits of three hard years of effort," said Kasten, the one constant in The Plan. "When I see people write about our team recently, it's 'Well, yeah, they've now amassed a core of young future starters, but then they have all these other problems.' Whoa, whoa, whoa, let's slow down, let's not gloss over it. It's hard to amass a core of young future starters. That took us time. I've always believed that that was the most important thing, that was Job One. Once we have a consistent rotation, everything else gets easier. Once you have pitchers giving you about seven innings every night, even the bullpen looks better."

True, the Nats have some promising young pitchers. No question about that. But after three years, by Kasten's own admission, the Nats still haven't reached a "consistent rotation" or "seven innings every night."

Maybe it's time to ditch The Plan, or switch to The Interim Plan. There isn't time to fix this season, but with two weeks to go before the trade deadline, there's time to make some moves. The deal for Morgan was the first step in shoring up their wretched defense. But the front office must acknowledge that Adam Dunn is best suited to be a designated hitter, yet plays in a league that doesn't have one, and that Austin Kearns may be done as a major league player. In short, they need to be active at the deadline. And they desperately need to sign top pick Stephen Strasburg. The Lerners might as well just give Scott Boras their ATM card; when landing the No. 1 draft pick is the highlight of your season, you paint yourself into a very tight corner.

So the Nats brass needs to a) get creative, or even just busy, at the July 31 trade deadline; b) sign Strasburg by Aug. 17; and then c) have a big talk. The Lerners and Kasten must decide who they want in the GM and manager roles for the long haul. If it's not Rizzo, cut him loose. He got far more than a bag of balls for Lastings Milledge, so clearly he will find work elsewhere. If you want a big-name manager, go get him (and be prepared to pay for him). But the next hires for both jobs need to be the guys you see in those jobs a decade from now.

Of course, those are just my interim suggestions.

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