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Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

FOX Sports baseball insider Ken Rosenthal created a bit of a stir yesterday with his four-part article/expose on the Nationals, which was not sensationally titled in the least ("National Crisis"). Robothal presents a lot of information to process -- some information we might have already known, some information that might shock us a little, some information that is unsourced, some information that lacks a temporal context (i.e., whether before or after the Lerners took over), and some information that appears to be added on for effect. I read the piece once, absorbed it a moment, and then read it again. The essence of what Rosenthal relates about this franchise can be expressed in three themes:

  • The Nationals' current front office is not on good terms with several former management and upper-level employees, who accuse the current ownership and administration of being substandard, ungrateful, and miserly bosses;
  • The new ownership has been oddly stingy or difficult with respect to seemingly routine (and seemingly negligible) expenses, whereas representatives of the Lerner-Kasten regime insist the club was intelligently starting over with everything and analyzing the efficiency of every expenditure;
  • Jim Bowden is a jerk.
I do not have the time to take a detailed, blow-by-blow look at every charge set forth in Rosenthal's narrative, and that's probably a good thing, as there's undoubtedly much information I do not know and will never know. As it is, I am not convinced the situation is as dire as Rosenthal's article portrays. While the balking over relatively insignificant expenditures seems ridiculous from my vantage point, the thrust of the article conveys to me that the team's organizational structure was in complete disarray prior to the changeover from the MLB regime to the Lernasten regime. It does not seem like the new regime has adequately handled these problems (something Bowden tacitly admits in the article, it seems), which is both curious and disappointing.

However, as inexcusable as it may be to short-change your own scouts (a charge leveled and, again, tacitly admitted), this problem seems to me one of structure rather than disposition. It is utterly illogical to make a big to-do about signing a small army of scouts and then hold out on them. I think more of Stan Kasten's intelligence than that. Rather, it seems to me Kasten and the rest jumped on the big, visible issues (gussy up the new stadium, make a show in the scouting and player development areas, etc.) while neglecting to implement the proper controls to ensure day-to-day operations flowed properly. If this is stupidity, then stupidity can be fixed.

An alternative theory -- though concededly not necessarily one of my own -- is that Kasten wields less power than it seems; instead, it is the Lerners who are penny-pinching either out of inexperience in organized baseball or because they are born penny-pinchers. Certainly, the thought is not without support. Rosenthal's article is not the first to reference a Lerner family member's personal knowledge of even de minimis expenditures by the team. Moreover, while the Lerner/Kasten marriage has the public veneer of a lockstep bond, the reality might be something different. Remember, Kasten was a late addition to the Lerner bid; up until then, Kasten had been most rumored as Fred Malek's white knight. Now, I'm not saying I know something about this (because I don't), but dozens of "insider" accounts insist Bowden still has a job in Washington because he ingratiated himself with Mark Lerner. Kasten appears to have compromised in some manner on the issue because even he acknowledges he has come around to like Bowden; as has been reported, Kasten's first impression of Bowden wasn't necessarily positive, since he has friends in the game who like Bodes and friends in the game who don't. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make (or at least proffer) is the possibility that Kasten and the Lerners have not yet settled into a comfortable working arrangement. While Kasten is clearly the club president and has much authority in player personnel matters, it seems conceivable there is some overlap on business matters.

The treatment of the former employees, while admittedly unsettling on some level, seems entirely overdone by Rosenthal. Again, keep in mind I know nothing about these situations or relationships. But let's look at two spurned figures in Rosenthal's article: former farm director Andy Dunn (who is not quoted directly, for obvious reasons) and former minor league pitching coordinator Brent Strom (who displays open bitterness of Bowden's personality and management style).

According to the article, Dunn resigned when he was not given assurance of long-term employment. Rosenthal indicates this was Dunn's reason for leaving "in part" -- apparently, he found the team's front office dynamics stressful, as did several individuals lower in the hierarchy. Rosenthal also reports that Bowden had previously promoted Dunn; although I could be misinterpreting Rosenthal's intent, it seems like Rosenthal amplifies this point, to what effect I am not entirely certain. Taking a broader view, it is apparent Bowden promoted Dunn under the earlier, MLB-owned, makeshift regime. This employment action in itself might not be an endorsement of Dunn, nor might be the fact that he currently is not employed in baseball, though I wish not to go down the route of sullying disgruntled former employees. Their misgivings are more than likely valid. However, am I troubled that the Bowden promoted a man under one regime and then the next regime would not give the fellow its imprimatur? Not really. I might feel differently if Dunn had left the club without demanding a long-term contract; that would have indicated to me he left entirely because the organization was in shambles. But he didn't. He left at least "in part" because this penny-pinching and apparently disheveled organization would not commit to him for the future.

As for Strom, Rosenthal quoted him as maintaining that Bowden "tries to lead through intimidation" and "[d]ifferent viewpoints aren't really considered." This may be. Two things, though. First, again, Strom might be a simple casaulty of being a product of a past regime. Is it unreasonable for a new regime to want its own guys, who are willing to think in a certain way and instruct in a certain manner? (Or, alternatively, who are toadies, I suppose.) Of course not. While I can't dispute Strom's substantive point here about Bowden, this is baseball we're talking about here, not some Stalinist purge. Second, an underling (which is what Strom was in this scenario) disagrees with a superior, loses out, and is bitter as a result? I'm discounting Strom's capability or claims, but this is not exactly a novel development, in or out of baseball.

As for the underlying claim that Jim Bowden can be a jerk, tell us something we don't already know.

At any rate, there's my take: some troubling-sounding stuff that hopefully is a product of mechanisms that can and will be fixed, and some issues with former employees that sound generally unrelated with the truly troubling-sounding stuff. My apologies in advance if this sounds like I'm trying to carry the Lernastens' or Bowden's water, or if this part of the post sounds like, well, an apologia. I'm just not certain I see an actual crisis here. Whatever it is, the best remedy might be for the Lerners to sit back and enjoy the ballgames; the rest -- with or without Bowden -- will sort itself out.

* * * *

The Nats made a surprise trade last night, dealing outfielder Chris Snelling to Oakland for Ryan Langerhans, who is now on his third team in a week. I saw Langerhans a good bit while he was a regular for the Richmond Braves in 2004, and my quicky scouting report is pretty much in line with his major league record: good batting eye, modest power, very capable defensive outfielder. Actually, there's a bit of a divergence on Langerhans's power; he hit 20 homers and slugged .518 that season, which isn't easy to do when your home park is The Diamond. That 2004 season seems an outlying power-wise. More to the point, Langerhans was acquired for his outfield defense.

On a talent basis, the A's got the better player. I'm very confident of that. Injury history aside, Snelling is younger and has a better offensive game. Despite being a superior defensive outfielder, Langerhans appears destined for a reserve role; that's how the Nats will use him, at any rate. Snelling appears to have an opening with Oakland, albeit owing to injury.

However, talent is only one element of success as a baseball player. Timing and opportunity are other elements, as is capitalzing on that opportunity. Objectively speaking, Snelling may be, say, a .290/.385/.480 (or whatever) caliber of offensive player. But he wasn't going to get a full chance with the Nationals, and he didn't perform all that well in the limited opportunity he was given. Yes, I'm well aware of sample size caveats and his strong on-base percentage, but those considerations are not directly on-point.

Snelling was going to be a secondary figure to Kory Casto, a product of the Nats' organization and thus a first wave fruit of "The Plan." And while I've stated in sporadic form the arguments for Snelling being a superior "prospect" than Casto (they're the same age and Snelling was a big leaguer at a substantially younger age, from which one can infer he has more natural, projectable ability), those arguments matter more in principle than in practice. It's easy to complain that your team's management doesn't know or recognize a player's worth or potential, but whether that complaint is grounded in truth probably presents another matter. While it's entirely possible the Nats didn't know what they had with Snelling, it's also quite possible the Nats knew but decided Snelling's abilities didn't fit the team's needs. Of course, it's also possible that many of us (as fans) thought we knew of more than actually existed. No matter; I like this trade most for Snelling's benefit.

As an immediate matter, Langerhans doesn't address the team's need for a reliable righthanded hitting outfielder off the bench. In essence, the Nats traded one lefty hitter for another, while recently recalling yet another lefty hitter (Casto) and stating it is days away from shifting another lefty hitter (Ryan Church) to a spot previously occupied by the aforementioned lefty hitters. That's a lot of lefty hitters. I'm not sure where Casto's playing time is going to come from, as a matter of fact, unless Church is also on the trading block.

The role envisioned for Langerhans upon Nook Logan's return is a bit curious. Bowden is quoted in the Washington Post article on the trade (linked above) as stating Langerhans (with Logan and Kearns) will form a dynamic late-inning defensive outfield. This is true. But it's also at the expense of Church, who would presumably be subbed out for Langerhans in the defensive alignment. The notion is curious because it involves disqualifying the team's current cleanup hitter and most consistent batter (to this point), who has adequately manned center in the meantime, for the sake of protecting late-inning leads when the team's closer has had his own troubles protecting late-inning leads. I have a feeling the first time the team loses a ninth inning lead, is forced to extra innings, then must bat Langerhans for Church in a situation requiring some power output might be the last. Or maybe not. But it's odd to me that a guy capably handling a more difficult position cannot now by trusted late in the game to handle leftfield.