11.28.2005

Three Pieces: Washington Nationals



The 2005 season was a success in a lot of ways for the Nationals. Away from the baseball Siberia of Montreal the Nats were a far more competitive team, particularly during the first half of the season. Although they fell in the standings after the break, they managed finish at exactly .500, far exceeding many preseason preditions, including my own. Can Washington build on their success first year success, or will they go the way of last MLB team to play in DC "First in war, first in peace, last in the American League" (which is would now be last in the National League East)?

1. Fire Jim Bowden

I've long been of the opinion that this man is the worst GM in baseball. His undistinguished tenure as Reds GM saw years of failing to address an obvious pitching weakness at either the minor league or major league level. His free agent signings last winter was some of the worst I've ever seen. Granted, I didn't think Guzman would become the worst everyday player in the game, but it wasn't difficult to predict he might not be worth the lavish contract Bowden offered him. And Vinny Castilla?! If there was ever a textbook case of the Coors Field effect, here it was. I give him some credit for making bold moves to try and improve the Nationals, but they were all the wrong ones. The Nationals managed to compete despite the moves Bowden made in the off-season, not because of them. If it wasn't for the emotional boost from playing in front of an enthusiastic home crowd for the first time in years, the Nationals may very well have finished well below 500.

2. Find an Owner

The Nationals may be able to get along with being a ward of Major League Baseball for a time. In the long term however, it will be impossible to remain a viable franchise without a new stadium and without an owner. I'm rather mystified why Reggie Jackson was reportedly interested in the Twins who aren't for sale and don't have a new stadium in place, even considering he wanted to move them to Vegas. The Nationals on the other hand have been on the market for a long time, have become a proven draw for fans, and are currently competitive. Baseball needs to do a better job of selling this club, and do whatever it takes to make the Nationals attractive to a potential owner. It would be better for the game if owners were forced to open their collective wallet and pay for a new ballpark, rather than allow the Nationals to fail in their new market. These next few months will be critical for the future of the franchise.

3. Fix the Trouble on the Farm

In a recent poll on John Sickel's excellent prospect blog, readers ranked the Nationals dead last in terms of their farm system. While I believe that is highly debatable choice (the Yankees are at least as bad) this is a major problem for the Nationals. No team can afford to completely neglect their minor league system, as the Yankees are beginning to find out. While the Yankees have the breathing room that 200 million dollars in payroll can provide, the Nationals have a far smaller margin for error. With nearly all of their most highly touted prospects failing to meet expectations in 2005, the Nationals have a long way to go. They need to revamp their entire draft strategy, minor league instruction and prospect analysis systems. Unforunately I have abolutely no faith in Jim Bowden to do this properly. This will be an uphill climb, at best, and could eliminate the chances of long term competitiveness in DC.

The Bottom Line:

The Nationals have a lot of problems. While the Major League team is in moderately good shape with the help of workhorses like Livan Herandez, they have a number of severe long term problems. The problems of the Nationals go beyond the simple solution of adding some right handed power or finding a dependable number two starter; the Nationals need to make the kind of decisions which will determine their viability as a baseball franchise. Without a new owner, a competent general manager and the painstaking work of rebuilding a shattered minor league organization the Nationals will simply not succeed. For the sake of Major League Baseball, I hope either I'm wrong that they find a way to solve these problems. Otherwise, the issue of contraction may very well be back on the table, and our national capital may, once again, want for a home team.

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