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As Nats embark on next journey, will Stan Kasten be on board?

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By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 11:24 PM

For the past five years, the public face of the Washington Nationals has been President Stan Kasten. Like a pit bull with a law degree, he has stood on the front step of Nationals Park and defended the team and its owners, the Lerner family, from every criticism.

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Will he still be there, on guard, next opening day?

Or, after a season of agonizing about his future, will he leave after his obligations to the Nats are over at the end of this year?

"I can honestly tell you that no decision has been made," Kasten said. "Remember, I am the master of misdirection."

Although friends, family and baseball associates know he has been reconsidering his future with the Nats for months, and some are certain he already has decided to leave, Kasten may still want to keep his options open. And as a result, he will continue to have as much influence as possible on the Lerner family, whom he has tried, with mixed success, to move toward his less-frugal way of thinking.

In the past, Kasten has never publicly said the Nats should increase payroll or be aggressive in free agency. Now, he's changed his tune.

"This is the time to act," he said this week. "We are close. This is how it felt in Atlanta just before we turned it around. Once you've laid the groundwork and improved the farm system, you need to add some pieces. That's where we are now."

If the Lerners, with their gradually rising payroll of $66 million, took the decisive step toward the kind of $85 million budget that mid-market teams in new parks typically can afford, would Kasten stay to see his plan evolve?

After all his success with the Braves, it would be out of character for him to leave a job that remains so unfinished: 24th-best record, 23rd in attendance, 22nd in payroll. But, according to those closest to him, his frustration at his lack of effective influence on the Lerners, as well as a desire to get back to his family in Atlanta, will probably end his D.C. days.

If Kasten leaves - even if he soft-pedals his departure, praises his handpicked GM Mike Rizzo and crows about the futures of Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa and the rest - the Nats' reputation will take a hit within the industry. And they will have a hard time replacing his broad skill set.

My preference for the Nats' sake: He stays. My firm opinion: He's gone.

In Washington, Kasten is seen as caustic with the media and a symbol of baseball's second-worst record over the last five years, ahead of only the Pirates. Since he arrived in 2006, just four of 30 MLB teams have failed to have a winning season. This week, Nationals Park had its smallest crowd ever: 10,999. Moreover, Kasten is seen by many as the guy who invited all those insulting Phillies fans to invade his own team's opening day. Maybe he knew Atlanta inside out, they argue, but he has proven tone-deaf in the Washington market.


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