The Nats don't need to be have-nots

According to Forbes Magazine, Ted Lerner is the wealthiest owner in the entire major leagues! He is the 191st wealthiest person... in the entire world, with $3.2 billion. So it's not like Lerner is short on cash. But you wouldn't know this from watching the on-field product at Nationals Park.


The organization's plan for 2009 has failed miserably. We have a starting rotation that consists of four rookies and a 2nd-year player. The previous GM brought in two supposed veterans to shore up the rotation but Scott Olsen is not that old himself and Daniel Cabrera apparently hasn't learned basic mechanics that most pitchers learn in Little League. Hardly the ideal pair of wise old veterans to guide a young pitching staff along. Cabrera may never pitch in the major leagues again after being designated for assignment by the Nats and Olsen has been very inconsistent this year.

There is absolutely no excuse for Lerner to be taking this extreme small-market approach with the Nats. He did allow former GM Bowden to pursue Teixeira this offseason but given the sorry state of the team, there was really no way Teixeira would have picked the Nats over the Yankees (or the Red Sox). There was all this talk about "The Plan", to follow the old Atlanta Braves strategy of developing young pitchers and then supplementing the team later on with a few key free agents. Well, why couldn't they at least sign some crafty experienced veterans to help the young guys? (By veterans, I don't mean a bunch of washed-up starting pitchers and relievers that no other team would sign.) Why do fans (those of us who are still around) have to put up with what looks to be consecutive 100-loss seasons?

Ted Lerner has plenty of money, almost three times as much as George Steinbrenner. The Washington, DC area is one of the most affluent metropolitan areas in the country. This is not some podunk borderline minor-league city we're talking about here. This is the capital of the free world and a leading economic center. The NFL's Washington Redskins have long been big spenders (although that money hasn't been spent very wisely) and the Washington Capitals of the NHL were very successful this past season. (The Wizards were a playoff team until most of their starters got injured for the majority of the past season.) Why are the Nats acting like they are stuck in the middle of a barren field with no people or money for miles around? They have pretty much killed off most of the excitement of 2005 when real baseball in Washington was such a novelty. Well, let me rephrase that. Some might say that we still don't have "real" baseball in Washington.

I won't be that negative and say that the entire team is a joke because we do have some quality younger players. The problem is that most of the pitchers have been rushed up far quicker than they would have been with almost any other organization. And there is far too much talk about "potential" and "the future" when analyzing the Nats. This is not a farm team. This is a major league team. Major league teams are supposed to be built to win, not develop players that "could" be stars in 3 years.

While it's true that the commissioner's office dug a deep hole for the franchise when they ran the team in the early 2000s, it has now been long enough that we should be seeing signs of progress. The offense has improved tremendously but the pitching, especially the bullpen, has been an outright disaster. And it's not like the situation was the result of a rash of key injuries. The problems were brought on by extremely poor planning and roster development. How could the team not know about Daniel Cabrera's fragile psyche and lack of proper pitching mechanics? He pitched for 5 years just up I-95. The team couldn't afford to send up a scout there once in a while to watch him? Or at least read the Baltimore Sun or even the Washington Post (which covers the Orioles to some extent)? The bullpen was loaded with inexperienced players at the start of the season. The team lost key pieces in Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch and yet did very little to build up a new quality bullpen.

Some of these decisions lie at the feet of former GM Jim Bowden. But to be fair to him, he was usually operating under very severe budgetary restrictions. That's why he was always looking for diamonds in the rough and specials in the bargain-basement bins. Why? Why is an owner with the astounding wealth of Ted Lerner forcing his GM to be looking for Blue Light Specials year in and year out? The market value of the team has dropped precipitously from the $450 million purchase price in 2006 to $156 million today. The television audience is embarrassingly low for a minor league team let alone a major league team in the nation's capital.

While I'm not asking Lerner to follow the lead of Dan Snyder or George Steinbrenner and start throwing money around on name players no matter their age or state of decline, the Nats can and should try to trade for some mid-level veterans to plug in a few holes. Centerfield has been a big problem this year. Even the team understands that neither Elijah Dukes nor Lasting Milledge are natural CFs. The only real CF we've had this year was Justin Maxwell but he's not quite ready to take over the position. Catcher is another problem if Jesus Flores continues to get injured. Maybe Flores should be transitioned to 1B to take over if and when Nick Johnson leaves the team (this year or this offseason). Flores has a great bat but he gets too beat up behind the plate. This would solve the long-term 1B situation although it would open up a new hole at catcher.

Then there's the bullpen. Maybe Hanrahan develops into a quality closer, maybe he doesn't. Maybe we'll have more than 1 or 2 guys who can actually throw strikes and get people out. But until then, it might help to find another decent reliever who isn't necessarily a star but is a cut above players like Logan Kensing.

As Rob Dibble keeps mentioning on the broadcasts, the defense can be fixed through the scheduling of daily infield and OF practices before the games. He also suggests that the bullpen coach assist with the pitchers from the dugout instead of sitting out there in the bullpen. Could this be a backhanded indictment of Randy St. Claire? Maybe. Anytime an entire pitching staff struggles this badly, some blame has to lie with the pitching coach.

There's enough blame to go around but in the case of the Nationals, it starts at the top, with owner Ted Lerner. The failure to sign the no. 1 draft pick last year doesn't make fans feel comfortable about the team's future. What is going to happen with Stephen Strasburg and his agent, "Maximum" Boras? Are the Nats going to rely on all of the young guys developing into dependable starters by next season? Injuries can and do happen. Lerner doesn't need to go on a spending frenzy to fix the team but he does need to open up his wallet a little, in order to put a respectable product out there on the field. At this point, it isn't a respectable product. The team can score 5 or 6 runs every game through September but everyone knows that the Nats will still lose a majority of the games with that bullpen and the inexperienced starting pitching.


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