Former orphans of baseball struggling for long-term success

Posted: March 27, 2007

VIERA, Fla. - Stan Kasten wore a blue Washington Nationals cap as he watched batting practice one recent morning. A hardhat might have been more fitting.

The Nationals are a construction zone and Kasten, the club president, is the project foreman. He knows the job well. In 17 years as president of the Atlanta Braves, he oversaw that team's transformation from doormat to dynasty. He is working to bring a similar result to the nation's capital.

It won't happen overnight. But it can happen.

"I think Don Sutton put it best," said Kasten, recalling a conversation with the Hall of Fame pitcher who, after years of calling Braves games, has joined the Nationals' television broadcast team. "He said, 'I've seen this movie before, and it has a happy ending.' "

The early scenes might not be pretty, though. The Nationals finished in last place in the National League East last season, going 71-91. They have lost Alfonso Soriano, who had 46 homers and 95 RBIs, and their starting pitching, the most important element of any team, is patchwork at best.

Not that this has dampened the spirits of anyone around the team.

"It's night and day," said Ryan Zimmerman, 22, the third baseman and cornerstone of the building effort.

A year ago, the Nationals were beginning their fifth season as the orphans of baseball. Major League Baseball had purchased them for $120 million before the 2002 season, when they were the Montreal Expos. Under MLB's stewardship, the franchise was run on shoestring budgets and the farm system deteriorated. Every spring, the players were told they'd soon have a new owner, but the process took much longer than expected because MLB didn't want to sell the team until a plan for a new stadium was in place.

"It got to the point where we weren't even paying attention to it anymore," Zimmerman said.

Finally, last summer, MLB sold the team for $450 million to a group headed by Ted Lerner, a longtime D.C. businessman. A $611 million stadium project is underway in the Southwest part of the city. The stadium will open next season, with a backdrop of cherry blossoms just beyond the left-field wall.

"The former management team's mission was to keep the franchise competitive and get it ready for sale," said Kasten, an investor in the club. "Our mission is to take a franchise which is now owned by a family with deep roots in D.C. and build something that has long-term success and brings pride to the community for a long time."

Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden will be employing the Atlanta model in their construction project. They have added 10 scouts and increased the scouting and player development budgets. They will build through the draft and player development, and they will place emphasis on young pitchers. They will not sign big-money free agents until they are ready to win. They will, however, sign high-ceiling youngsters from Latin America, as they did last summer when they announced their arrival in the region by signing highly regarded teenage shortstop Esmailyn Gonzalez of the Dominican Republic for $1.4 million. Gonzalez will open the season in the low minors.

"We took over a last-place team. That's the good news," Kasten said. "The bad news is we have the lowest-rated minor-league operation. Fixing that is job No. 1. We're throwing all the resources we can at revamping player development and overhauling our scouting operation.

"There are aspects of this that will be reminiscent of Atlanta. But more so, it's Branch Rickey 101: Build your farm system. Bring in a lot of arms."

The Nationals believe they have a top arm in 23-year-old lefty Matt Chico, whom they acquired from Arizona for Livan Hernandez last summer. They hope to land several more in the June draft, when they have five of the top 70 picks.

"This approach won't help our record today," Kasten said. "But it's easy for me to understand because I've lived it."

The Nationals believe they pulled off a coup by hiring 38-year-old manager Manny Acta, who managed his native Dominican Republic in last year's World Baseball Classic.

"When that country needed a guy to manage their stars, they chose Manny Acta," Kasten said. "He can lead men. He knows our plan, and he knows where he's going."

Acta was third-base coach for the NL East champion Mets last season. That club was star-studded. His new club doesn't have much. First baseman Nick Johnson, the team's highest paid player, won't be ready until around mid-season as he recovers from a broken femur. Austin Kearns brings some pop to the outfield. Zimmerman is close to stardom, a top defender who had 20 homers, 47 doubles and 110 RBIs in finishing second in the rookie-of-the-year voting last year.

The Nats have some nice pieces in the bullpen, with Jon Rauch and closer Chad Cordero. Righthander John Patterson leads a suspect rotation and Brian Schneider is the catcher.

After that, it's pretty thin. But no one seems too worried about that. The Braves weren't built in a day. The Nationals, no longer the orphans of baseball, won't be either.


Read The Inquirer's previews of the

National League East at http://go.philly.com/phillies.


Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury at 215-854-4983 or jsalisbury@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|