- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
ON HIS penultimate day as Nationals general manager, Jim Bowden leaned against the batting cage, surveyed the field at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., through a pair of dark sunglasses and, speaking above the metronomic thwack of bat on batting-practice ball, gave a muted assessment of the state of his franchise: "We'll go as far as the young guys can take us." But when Bowden resigned two days later—he deemed himself a "distraction" to the club in the midst of a federal investigation into his possible role in an alleged bonus-skimming scandal—suddenly his shades assumed a rosier hue. In his parting statement he said, "The team, the fans, the media can now turn all of their attention [to] the baseball field for the Washington Nationals and their upcoming 2009 championship season."
That's not quite the team he's bequeathed to the District of Columbia. Not even close.
For better and mostly for worse, this is Bowden's club, and what he leaves behind is this: a core of young, mostly uninspiring pitchers; a glut of first basemen (five) and corner outfielders (seven); a scandal that forced the shutdown of the team's Dominican academy; and a .439 winning percentage over the last four seasons. Bowden's goal last year "to win more than we lose" was catastrophically out of reach.
Interim G.M. Mike Rizzo, who earned a solid reputation for his work in helping build the Diamondbacks' fertile player development program, inherits a roster that is indeed young, if not all that promising. Nowhere is that more evident than on the pitching staff. Of the 19 pitchers on the 40-man roster, only one (reliever Saul Rivera) is older than 27. And by virtue of his 31 starts more so than his 9--15 record in 2008, lefthander John Lannan, 24, is the staff's nominal ace; likewise, the closer, Joel Hanrahan, 27, had only nine saves. A fourth or fifth starter on most other clubs, Lannan at least recognizes why he has such elevated status in the rotation. "I'm a second-year guy," he says. "It's just that no one's really around that was here last year, so I guess I'm the carryover."
Team president Stan Kasten previously presided over the Braves' run of 14 straight division titles, which was defined by great pitching. "You can buy one pitcher, but you can't buy a rotation," he says. "We've taken these last couple of years to develop pitchers." Righthanders Collin Balester and Shairon Martis, both 22, each made a few starts for Washington last year and should be joined by the organization's best prospect, Jordan Zimmerman, a second-round pick in '07 who has shot up through the farm system (15--5, 2.74 ERA in three minor league stops). "I came up with the Dodgers, and I watched Chad Billingsley all the time," says Hanrahan. "[Zimmerman] seems like a clone of him. He's got a power arm, and he isn't afraid."
Zimmerman, however, is merely the franchise's interim Next Big Thing. The Nationals hold this June's No. 1 draft pick, almost certain to be San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg, whom some scouts have gone so far as to call the greatest prospect of all time. National bailout indeed—if signing him isn't too difficult. Strasburg's rumored asking price is at least $10 million and Washington failed to corral its first-round pick last year, righthander Aaron Crow of Missouri.
Washington's woes in '08 were exacerbated by a plague of injuries that forced manager Manny Acta to use 122 different lineups. Only three players appeared in more than 106 games, and none surpassed 140. Three of the most troubled spots were first base, leftfield and rightfield, and Bowden overcompensated by signing Adam Dunn and adding Josh Willingham to a group of outfielders that already includes Elijah Dukes, Willie Harris, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Peña. Dunn's power, at least, is a welcome addition to a middle of the lineup that did not have a single 20-homer bat. Willingham, on the other hand, is just another middling platoon player who will join Harris, Kearns and Peña as pinch hitters and, perhaps eventually, trade bait.
While Bowden went down touting a championship and Lannan says the team "aspires" to match the example of the 2008 worst-to-first Rays, more likely for the '09 Nats is another season of futility, probably two.
Manager Manny Acta