It’s Friday afternoon and the Washington Nationals’ series of community relations events, dubbed the Winter Caravan, is entering the homestretch. Newly-minted manager Manny Acta, centerfielder Nook Logan and pitcher Mike O’Connor sit inside the bustling Red Cross Blood Donor Center in Fairfax, Va., signing baseballs for kids both young and old. One kid, of the 45-year-old variety, tries to make small talk with O’Connor as he collects his signed ball.
“So, what position do you play?”
“I’m a pitcher,” O’Connor replies patiently.
Lack of recognition will likely be a recurring issue as the youth-filled Nationals avail themselves to the public and attempt to put a face on a franchise that relocated to the District two and half years ago. Of course, of late, that face has been changing at a rate only Michael Jackson could appreciate.
Consider: Last year at this time, Logan was heading into a Spring Training with the Tigers that would see him lose his starting job to Curtis Granderson and eventually his spot on Detroit’s 40-man roster. Before getting called up in April last year, O’Connor had never pitched above Single A in the minors. Only three members of the Nationals’ 2006 Opening Day starting lineup (Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman and Brian Schneider) are still on the team.
The roster overhaul and emphasis on young talent and player development has always been part of plan for the new ownership group led by the Lerner family and Stan Kasten. The frenzied free agency period and salary spike of the off-season, however, was unpredicted. The price the Nats have paid for sticking to their penny-pinching plan of the present is readily evident in their lack of a starting rotation, after the dominant-when-healthy John Patterson. Even after Spring Training whittles the group of minor leaguers and reclamation projects, the group will likely resemble something out of a Laurel and Hardy sketch for the fans — as in “Who is that on the mound?”, “What the heck is he doing out there?”, “When is this inning going to end?”, “Why is God punishing me like this?” and lastly “Where is the cyanide?”
“I think everybody here knows the issue is our starting rotation,” Acta says Friday. “We’re going to throw some guys out there in Spring Training and find four other guys to go out there with Patterson.”
Acta also confirmed that O’Connor, the most experienced returning starter for the Nationals, will not be ready for the start of the season after surgery on his throwing elbow. That leaves a pool of prospects like Matt Chico (3.27 ERA, 13 strikeouts in three starts at Harrisburg) and Collin Balester (1.83 ERA in three starts at Harrisburg) to join the few names who saw time in the bigs last year: Shawn Hill (1-3, 4.66 ERA), Jason Bergmann (6.68 ERA as a reliever and spot starter) and Beltran Perez (impressive, if wild, in two wins over the Braves and Mets, before New York smacked him for six runs the second time around).
Then there’s the trio of Brandon Claussen, Jerome Williams and Tim Redding — once top prospects, they’ve fallen on hard times since reaching the majors and the Nationals picked them off the scrap heat at the start of the offseason. The Nationals’ 2007 lineup should be sound, with Felipe Lopez at the top and a 3-4-5 of Johnson, Zimmerman and Austin Kearns. On the same token, that lineup isn’t going to be able to win games on its own either.
None of the pessimism surrounding the Nationals’ pitching staff is to say that Kasten’s plan of building for the long term is a poor strategy. It paid dividends to the tune of a dynasty for Kasten’s Braves and more-recently produced an American League Championship for the Detroit Tigers. But stockpiling prospects won’t make 2007 any prettier.
“I’ve been in baseball 20 years and I’ve spent the last five looking into what these guys like to do or don’t like to do and just try to produce a good atmosphere for my players so they can produce for me,” Acta says.
Acta is known as a players coach, developing that reputation while with the Mets and also as the manager for the Dominican Republic team at the World Baseball Classic. On the same token, he’s prideful too, Acta won’t let this team roll over. At the same time, there’s only so much juice he can coax out of this team. Yes, the Marlins made a wild-card charge last summer, but that roster was full of blue-chip talent like Anibal Sanchez, Josh Johnson, Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez. The Nats have blue-chippers too, but they’re years away from the Majors. Heck, some of the kids they inked out of the Dominican are barely through puberty.
The plan to invest in the future is a good one, as is sitting out this ridiculous spending spree, but that doesn’t mean Nats fans will dodge taking one on the chin this year. And after a 20-percent attendance dip last year, what would a 90-loss season do? Will the faithful continue to show in spite of the pain? Or will Washington have to start pushing package deals to S&M conventions passing through the area?
It seems clear that growing pains await, so the Nationals better mean it when players say they enjoy interacting with the community. With a year of vast uncertainty ahead, in order to keep drawing fans to the ballpark, they’re going to need to continue to put their best face forward… no matter whose face it happens to be.