Spring Postcard: Nationals turning to bevy of young pitchers
Players seem to be avoiding all the talk of GM Jim Bowden
John Lannan returns to the rotation as the nominal ace
There is no end in sight to the ongoing Teddy Roosevelt saga
1. The Jim Bowden saga is not a distraction to the players.
Though the fallout of an SI.com report about a federal investigation of general manager Jim Bowden has dominated headlines about the Nationals, the buzz about it at Space Coast Stadium has been confined to conversations among fans, media and, presumably, team officials behind closed office doors. But the players seem to be avoiding all the talk. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said he hasn't been involved in any conversation about the topic, a sentiment shared by closer Joel Hanrahan. "I haven't heard it mentioned in here [the clubhouse] one time," Hanrahan said. "Not one time. It's out of our control."
Those comments support manager Manny Acta, who said it hasn't been a distraction. "Not at all, not to our players," Acta said. "I think these guys really don't care about that. That's more for me and upper management." Bowden fielded only baseball questions Friday morning, and team president Stan Kasten echoed Acta's answer.
"It's a distraction to fans, for sure, a distraction to me for all the things you know and all the things you don't know," said Kasten, who gestured toward his players engaged in fielding drills and continued. "Not one of these guys cares. It doesn't affect them at all. With all due respect, they're not reading your stuff. They're not reading the Washington Post. If they do, they do, but it just doesn't affect their lives that much. I don't know when I've been around a more talented, enthusiastic, excited group of kids who are having a blast about the way they're fitting together and about the future. We have a great new, enthusiastic coaching staff to go along with one of baseball's youngest, most enthusiastic managers. There's all this energy here. It's unfortunate that it's a distraction to me and some fans.
"And it's a real distraction to you guys [reporters] -- a real distraction to you guys. I can't get you guys to talk about baseball, and that's a real problem for me. But it is not a distraction out there [on the field]. It's why steroids are always, always an offseason story. Ever notice that once the games start, we don't see steroids stories any more?"
2. John Lannan is a "beacon" of hope.
That was the word by used a Nationals media relations official to describe the 24-year-old, 6'5" lefthander, an 11th-round pick in 2005 out of Siena College. He began 2007 in High A ball and finished it by making six starts with the big-league club. Last year he took 31 turns in the rotation, went 9-15 with a 3.91 ERA and, with Tim Redding not being tendered a contract offer, Lannan returns as the nominal ace. He shies away from that description -- "it's not a good title," he says, "I'm just a second-year guy -- it's just that no one is really around that was here last year" -- but he's an example to the rest of Washington's young pitchers that it's possible to be fast-tracked to the majors. A Long Island, N.Y., native who stayed in-state for school, he hasn't logged as many innings as pitchers from warm-weather states. Plus, he only worked with a personal trainer for the first time this offseason, so he ought to continue to improve with experience.
3. There's certainly a ton of young pitching.
It's a point that Kasten has emphasized. "You can't buy a rotation," said Kasten, president of the Braves for 17 years, a period that included the development of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery and others. "We've taken the last several years to develop our pitchers." Of the 19 pitchers on the 40-man roster, only one, reliever Saul Rivera, was born before 1980. Among the young arms that have drawn praise this spring are Collin Balester, a 22-year-old righty who made 15 starts last season; 21-year-old righty Shairon Martis; and non-roster invitee Jordan Zimmerman, a 22-year-old righthander whom Baseball America rated the club's top prospect.
Please send ...
... a resolution to Bowden's status. Several news agencies, including this one have reported that the general manager's job is in jeopardy. Whether it's Kasten or ownership, someone should come forward either to make the move or give Bowden a vote of confidence, then the focus can return entirely to baseball.
Not done yet
The Teddy Roosevelt saga. Since July 2006, four of this nation's most prominent presidents -- the folks from Mount Rushmore, Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt -- have sprinted around the field in a mid-inning race. Jefferson was the 2006 season champ, Washington in '07 and Lincoln in '08, a runaway winner the same year a fellow Illinois Senator, Mr. Obama, was elected president. And Roosevelt? He's never won a single race, much less a season series. It's all detailed at the fan site, Let Teddy Win. The apparent conspiracy has disgusted at least one National, Hanrahan. Asked if Roosevelt would ever win, he replied, "No, never. Absolutely not. I gave up watching that race. I can't take it any more. At least give me an effort, will you?" Kasten chimed in too. "People ask me, 'When is Teddy going to win?' What am I, Nostradamus? How would I know that?" said the club president. "I also often get the question, 'Is the president's race fixed?' I tell them, 'No, it remains broken.'"
Nationals assistant general manager Mike Rizzo. The former Diamondbacks director of scouting, who has been with the Nationals since July 2006, just returned after completing a unique challenge. "It doesn't compare to anything I've ever done in baseball," Rizzo said.
In meeting with reporters after Friday's game with the Astros -- a 2-0 Washington win, for what it's worth -- Rizzo shared details from his work the previous three days in the Dominican Republic. Rizzo completed a whirlwind itinerary in which he, on behalf of the club, terminated operations for the baseball academy at the training facility owned by former special assistant to the GM, Jose Rijo, who was fired earlier this week; dismissed 10 members of the training staff; released 14 players (as the Nats downsize from two academy teams to one); hired a new coaching staff; negotiated a deal for a new facility (built by the Rawlings Foundation and used by the D.R.'s World Baseball Classic team); and met with the players to discuss the move. Rizzo then gave each player a travel stipend to go home for a long weekend and celebrate Dominican Independence Day, which, coincidentally, is Friday. "We wildly exceeded what I thought we were going to get accomplished," Rizzo said.
The Nationals are moving from that site in San Cristobal, which was distant from the majority of major-league team's academies in Santo Domingo, to Boca Chica, which is only a few miles away. Also present were Mark Scialabba, assistant director of player development, and Fernando Ravelo, GM of the Tigres de Licey, the "New York Yankees of the Dominican Winter League," who was hired to oversee the team's Dominican operations and assisted Rizzo in the D.R. this week. Fortuitously for the Nationals, Ravelo was in nearby Melbourne, Fla. -- about 16 miles away -- visiting his son in college when the club contacted him.
It's an important, quick, and complete step forward for the club, which, as Kasten promised, would be more hands-on in its supervision of the D.R. academy.
Adam Dunn, when asked about his remarkable consistency (four straight years of exactly 40 home runs), quipped, "It's very odd, but I guess it's better than 39." ... Lefty starter Scott Olsen, acquired along with outfielder Josh Willingham from the Marlins in a Novermber trade, is watching video of himself from the last three seasons to try and regain some speed on his fastball. "I lost a lot of velocity last year," he said, "and I'm not quite sure why." He says he normally pitches around 90-91 mph on his fastball, with a peak of 97, but only consistently hit 86-87 last year. ... Acta joked that Tigers starter Edwin Jackson was "throwing way too hard for the second day of spring training." Jackson struck out three Nationals in two scoreless innings on Thursday. ... Jorge Sosa hasn't arrived yet. He's in the Dominican Republic dealing with a visa issue.
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