View Full Version : Boswell: Nats Young Pitchers Offer Glimmer of Hope In Well of Disappointment

05-24-2009, 09:46 AM
Young Pitchers Offer Glimmer of Hope In Well of Disappointment
By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, May 24, 2009

As they play the Orioles this weekend, the Nationals dream of becoming contenders, but for competence, not pennants. Their time frame: Someday. Their present: more losses.

Why hope?

Why not?

Tomorrow, Nats right-hander Shairon Martis, 22, from Willemstad, on Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles, will try to beat Baltimore to raise his record to 6-0 and improve his rookie-of-the-year status from implausible to conceivable. His pitching model, he says, has been Greg Maddux, all brains and changing speeds, with a dash of Pedro Martínez. Martis speaks four languages but the wise rookie says, "I try not to say too much in any of them." He remains a promise and a mystery -- maybe a flash in the pan, maybe real.

On Friday night, Jordan Zimmermann, on the eve of his 23rd birthday, held Baltimore to two runs in seven innings with seven strikeouts on only 97 pitches. "I want to come back with this kid's stuff," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, who has seen three of his starts.

Team building is the work of years. For fans, watching the process requires patience, forgiveness and delayed gratification -- the last things you want at a ballpark, where a cold beer, a hot dog and a standing ovation were more what you had in mind.

Some, perhaps wisely, have turned their eyes away. For the rest of us, a breed far larger than seems sane, we stay tuned. Bad teams are a heritage, a burden, a secret pleasure, a baseball laboratory and, when kept compartmentalized in just one ventricle of our hearts, seldom actually fatal.

Fifty years ago in Griffith Stadium, I was initiated in the rites. The Nats and Orioles were locked in a similar battle of bad and worse. I loved it then, knowing no better, and am determined to enjoy it now, since I have no choice. It's an odd pastime for a lifetime. Yet, for a century, millions have shared it. In a world with the Yankees, everyone else in baseball is born more likely to lose than win.

How do you enjoy losing teams, seeing them for what they are rather than wasting years of energy, mocking them for what they are not? How do you hold the owners and front offices who guide these Titanics accountable for their disasters, yet respect the athletes who man the lifeboats as best they can, going over the side into the icy waters of .400 baseball 162 times a season, knowing the long odds against keeping their dignity or jobs?

Most of all, since baseball should be fun, how do you squeeze a dozen laughs or cheers out of a 95-loss season for every time you curse at the TV?

For many teams, the answer is complex. As a child, I isolated the excellence of home run champion Roy Sievers from the comedy of Herb Plews or the unfulfilled potential of Pedro Ramos, who carried a Wild West six-shooter on road trips (sometimes loaded).

But for the Nats, it's simple. The biggest reasons to watch, to study, even to believe in a future, all sit in a row, locker to locker. There we find those rookies Martis and Zimmermann, plus steady lefty John Lannan, 2008's pitching discovery.

"We're all quiet, maybe a little boring," says Zimmermann, whose PA music, Citizen Cope's "Son's Gonna Rise," hints that "smart" may be the word he's overlooking.

"On the mound, they're all 'ice water,' " says Manager Manny Acta.

Nearby sit Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen, who made their first major league starts this week. Detwiler, a No. 6 overall draft pick in '07, threw 73 percent strikes in five strong innings, then followed it up with a one-hit, six-inning performance on Saturday night against the Orioles. Stammen, an obscure 12th-rounder who reinvented himself with a power sinker, retired 18 of the first 19 men he faced. No verdicts yet. They may revisit AAA ball. But the rotation door stands ajar for either if he kicks hard enough.

And on June 9, as Lannan says dryly, "Oh, I think we'll draft Stephen Strasburg."

He throws 102 mph and is often called, by the hyperventilating intelligentsia of draftology, the best pitching prospect since such picking began in '65. (Pass the salt.)

Young pitching is the most precious, but perishable commodity in baseball. You don't count such chickens until they hatch, molt, grow feathers, flap around the barnyard and win a dozen games twice. So far, these five infants who, for the moment, constitute the Nats' rotation are a 20-game winner. That is, combined they have 20 wins -- 13 of them Lannan's. But, to those of us who saw the '50s Orioles develop enough young arms to become the best team in baseball from '60 through '83, the point is clear. If your team will never have New York or Los Angeles money, then this is how you do it.

Will it work? That's what '09 and '10 are about. Maturity won't arrive until '11, at the earliest, even for Strasburg. That's not what the Nats, with tickets to sell, will say. But if you want to hop on this bad baseball train, that's what you have to accept, then relish.

At this instant, each has a pitching project. Lannan has to learn to buzz fastballs inside to left-handed hitters to set up his breaking pitches away. He could do it in the minors, then misplaced the knack. "I see the [left-handed] hitter," he says. That's bad. He should be invisible. In Lannan's last two starts he drilled a couple of lefties, didn't care, then turned several of them inside out with rainbow curves. Progress.

Martis has the compact repeatable delivery and fine changeup of his model Maddux. Command of a low-90s fastball with movement is the game's unappreciated weapon. He may have it, too. But Mad Dog's equalizer, the swing-back fastball that starts outside the plate then darts back over the corner, isn't in his arsenal. "I'm working on it," he says.

The most blessed with raw stuff, Zimmermann, was blighted by ugly beginnings, giving up 13 runs in six first innings. After that, efficient. Then, Friday, he learned to "stage" a mock first inning in the bullpen, with a coach standing at the plate as he warmed up. Problem solved? Also, against the Orioles he demonstrated true command, not just control, for the first time. "He's had 'plus' command everywhere else," said acting general manager Mike Rizzo. Such precision is the difference between Roy Oswalt and Roy Hobbs.

To enjoy a bad team, you have to distinguish between Martis, Lannan and Zimmermann, a combined 9-4, and all the other Nats pitchers, who are 3-25. The former are the future, the latter will mostly flake away. You have to care whether Detwiler has the gumption to pound the strike zone against scary lineups, not just the Pirates, and whether Stammen's hard sinker stays knee-high almost every night or just sometimes. Baseball is the sport in which the laboratory is so open to inspection that you can see the results of the experiment in real time.

The Nats, by being so utterly awful -- 71-131 since their new (publicly financed) ballpark opened -- have driven many normal folks from their midst.

But for those of us who can't, or don't, wish to help ourselves, who spend our hours so profligately on a bad team, these are days as fascinating as they are strange. The Nats, already assured of a hideous 11-game homestand, will play the Orioles on a warm Sunday afternoon in May in a lovely new ballpark with thousands of empty seats.

Shairon Martis, SHY-ron Mar-tiss, will start. Where else would you rather be?

cincinnati chili
05-24-2009, 01:05 PM
The Nats are so desperate for pitching that they offered up Nick Johnson for Manny Delcarmen, according to the Providence Journal. The Sox turned it down, which I think they will come to regret immensely.

05-25-2009, 07:07 AM
Bowden leaves behind another fan base trying to explain how to enjoy bad teams.

05-25-2009, 07:34 AM
Bowden leaves behind another fan base trying to explain how to enjoy bad teams.

I think Boswell's column is meant to be more universal than just what Jim Bowden left behind.

05-25-2009, 09:34 AM
I think Boswell's column is meant to be more universal than just what Jim Bowden left behind.Ok, horrible GMs like Jim Bowden leave behind another fan base trying to explain how to enjoy a bad team. I imagine the Astros can get reproduction rights for this article soon, as well.

05-25-2009, 12:05 PM
Except I think the Nats have something the Astros don't, a young offense. I like the Astros rotation a lot better, Oswalt/Rodriguez/Paulino is pretty good. But Zimmermann looks very very good, and Martis might be as well. A decent bullpen will certainly be tops on the shopping list in the off season.

The Nats may have one of the better catchers nobody has heard of in Flores. Johnson is healthy. They have 4 starters hitting over .310, and 4 OPSing over .900. It's a very good offense.

If given a decent bullpen, they can make some noise as early as next year. Jettisoning Cabrera and Olsen from the rotation will also help.

05-27-2009, 03:52 PM
If given a decent bullpen, they can make some noise as early as next year. Jettisoning Cabrera and Olsen from the rotation will also help.

I'm a prophet.

06-05-2009, 06:21 AM
Rather than start a new thread, I'll just post this piece from today's Post in Boswell's continuing saga of the woes of the Nationals and his thoughts on their ownership:

Route to the Bottom? It Starts at the Top

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, June 5, 2009

This week, the Nationals fired pitching coach Randy St. Claire. Traditionally, that means the manager has about a month to get his team to shape up or he's gone, too. The Nats have purged their bullpen twice, banished an outfielder to the minors, released a starting pitcher and, after 102 losses last season, are on pace for 117. That'd be just three defeats off the record set by the infinitely more amusing '62 Mets. And this, incredibly, is from a team that is third in the National League in runs per game.

When problems go this deep, the causes should be sought at the top, not the bottom. Accountability doesn't lie with a pitching rotation full of rookies or a bullpen built on tissue-thin résumés and prayer. In the past, the Nats have had injury excuses and cheerful long-term timetables to shield them. But now the blame -- and the solutions, if any -- surely must lie at the top with the billionaire Lerner family and team president Stan Kasten.

The Nats announced a grand plan in 2006, a D.C. version of what Kasten and the Braves did in Atlanta from 1988 to 91. Yet the franchise didn't follow the plan, or even come close. By last year, Kasten told friends acerbically, "There's more to a plan than the first sentence."

That first sentence was, in essence: Focus on building the farm system. Lose for a few years, get high draft picks then reap a talent harvest.

The rest of the plan, however, was just as important but required money up front: gradually sign free agents and make trades for vets, even though it increases your budget.

The degree to which the Lerners ignored Kasten's precepts, as well as his inability to pitch his ideas and his unwillingness to take a use-me-or-lose-me stand, is stunning.

In summer 2006, Kasten envisioned that by 2009, the plan would be obvious. The team would sign free agents before moving into a new park in 2008. Every team does. With new revenue coming, it improves the product. I wrote it all down.

That was then. What happened?

For a blueprint of broken promises, look at how the '91 Braves were built then compare that to the '09 Nats. Until four months ago, the Nats had not signed a free agent of significance. After a 2006 trade for Felipe López and Austin Kearns that cost the team $27 million in contracts to the disappointing pair, the club stopped making deals that sharply increased the payroll. Popular star Alfonso Soriano was not re-signed. Last year, the Nats did not even sign their No. 9 overall draft pick, part of their core philosophy. There are rationales for every decision. It is the totality that paints a different picture.

In contrast, the '91 Braves had free agents at first base (Sid Bream), shortstop (Rafael Belliard), third base (Terry Pendleton, MVP), center field (Otis Nixon, 72 steals), left field (Lonnie Smith), closer (Juan Berenguer, 2.24 ERA) as well as (Neon) Deion Sanders. The rotation included Charlie Leibrandt, acquired in trade then re-signed as a free agent. In the '91 World Series, the Braves even used a (inexpensive) free agent reliever named St. Claire, the pitching coach the Nats fired this week.

From 1993 to '96, the Braves added all-star free agents Fred McGriff, Greg Maddux, Marquis Grissom and Denny Neagle, all at elite-player prices.

Get the picture? Kasten's plan called for judicious steady spending, consistent with expected revenue.

That hasn't happened in Washington.

What caused this disconnect? Why has Kasten rationalized constantly on the Lerners' behalf, shielded them and, perhaps without knowing it, been an enabler as they followed a discount method of ownership that he never practiced and which was far from the tune he sang, simultaneously, to Washington's ticket-buying fans?

There's abundant irony in the Nats' sins finding them out this season. Six months ago, after those 102 losses and with season ticket sales plunging, the Lerners had a reality check. Or their top execs finally forced the issue. Or both.

Kasten and then-GM Jim Bowden got ownership to sign off on a trade with Florida that would add $6 million to payroll. Then the pair took a stand, putting their whole weight behind an attempt to sign Mark Teixeira, whom Bowden called the perfect free agent. It was an if-you-don't-do-this-you'll-never-do-anything moment. Ted Lerner not only agreed but led the courtship enthusiastically.

Yet when the Nats' nine-year, $188 million offer didn't bag the slugger, the Lerners seemed to crawl back toward their financial shell. They waited until February and got bargain deals for free agents Adam Dunn (on pace for 51 homers) and Joe Beimel. But they lost a shot at an established starting pitcher, either Randy Wolf or Jon Garland. After Bowden resigned in March, Kasten took over negotiations with Ryan Zimmerman and got a five-year, $45 million deal done minutes before the star's Opening Day deadline.

The organization exhaled. Bowden, and his astronomical evaluations of players he'd drafted or acquired, was gone. The Lerners had listened to him, probably too much. For example, why spend $10 million a year for dependable free agent Aaron Rowand to play center field when Bowden could trade away two vets with millions in salary for Lastings Milledge, making $400,000, and convert him into a star in center? With the palace courtier Bowden gone, Kasten gained influence and named Mike Rizzo, a popular baseball lifer and son of a lifelong scout, as interim general manager.

So much for optimism. The losing started immediately -- 0-7, then 1-10. With no veteran leader in either the rotation or bullpen, rattled nerves led to a cascade of failure. A 2-9 May homestand begat an 0-6 road trip, including one game during which fly balls bounced off the gloves of all three Nats outfielders.

"Can you believe the things that happen to us? But it's going to turn around. Things are changing," Mark Lerner said.

Would he or his father be interviewed about the Nats' problems and, perhaps, those changes? "In time," he said.

This week, Kasten, the voice of the franchise, insisted that: "We are closer than most people think. Our offense is fixed. We are going to be even more active in this next offseason than we were last offseason.

"But the thing that lets me sleep at night is on this paper."

Kasten held up a scrap with a long list of young Nats pitchers, including Jordan Zimmermann, John Lannan, Ross Detwiler, Shairon Martis, Craig Stammen, Scott Olsen and Collin Balester, as well as Stephen Strasburg, whom the Nats will draft with the No. 1 overall pick next week.

"This game is about starting pitching," Kasten said. "There is a quality rotation here on this list. We need to find out which ones they are."

Kasten believes this. But he also believed that Milledge, who didn't even show up on time for his own broken-finger surgery last month, and Elijah Dukes, who's been on the disabled list four times in a year, would be 10-season fixtures in the outfield.

Did the Nats actually bottom out last winter? Are we seeing the delayed comeuppance now for the previous 2 1/2 years? Or are the Nats, with the oddly fitted Lerner-Kasten combination at the top, a franchise that is systemically dysfunctional? Stay tuned.

"There have been too many attempts at a quick fix," Rizzo said. "This took a while to get broken, and it's going to take a while to repair."

The reasons for that damage, like any hopes for the future, start not with relievers, coaches or even managers. They start right at the top. And can only be fixed there.

07-08-2009, 06:18 AM
The saga known as the Nats continues. Another Boswell column on the subject:

In Need Of a Major Overhaul

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Blow up the Nats. Or at least spend the rest of this month, before the trading deadline, giving it a try. This misshapen group is no good together, so why not take it apart?

The Nats should keep their eight young starting pitchers, including three at Class AAA. Hang on to Ryan Zimmerman, injured catcher Jesús Flores, perhaps Josh Willingham and probably Adam Dunn. New outfielder Nyjer Morgan looks useful. Beyond that: open for business.

No team could trade all of the rest, nor should it. Even dealing half of the rest for reasonable value wouldn't be feasible. But the Nats should be committed to the concept that their current roster is so lopsided, so dysfunctional that any reasonable change will probably be an improvement. If, next month, the Nats are without Nick Johnson, Joe Beimel, Willie Harris, perhaps Cristian Guzmán and more, too, don't be surprised.

Did you think that Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan would be traded last week, or Elijah Dukes sent to the minors? Acting general manager Mike Rizzo already appears to be far down this road to radical reshaping. Inside Nats Town, the words "start over" have been heard.

One reason Manny Acta seems unable to manage, though he handled games adequately in '07, is that he has no team. He has a monstrosity, a random collection of pieces that don't interconnect and can't, in any normal sense of the word, be "managed." The Nats are like driving a car with two steering wheels, three engines, four sets of brakes and no wheels.

Why doesn't it go anywhere?

Because . . . it . . . is . . . not . . . a . . . car.

It's time for the Nats to trade brakes for wheels and hope for a vehicle that moves -- someday. Right now, the Nats are perfectly constituted -- to lose every way imaginable. On Monday night in Colorado, they wasted yet another fine pitching performance by a rookie, Craig Stammen, in a 1-0 loss. Rizzo says the Nats won't hold "a fire sale." Translation: All decent offers appreciated, just no insulting jokes, please.

All season, everybody has said that they've seldom seen a team that is so much less than the sum of its parts. How can you be middle of the pack in the NL in scoring, have a functional young pitching rotation and yet be on a pace for an utterly awful 113 losses?

How can one of the worst teams in 50 years, at least by its record so far, have four players who could be the team's symbolic all-star next week without causing outright laughter -- Zimmerman (30-game hitting streak), Dunn (22 homers entering last night), Guzmán (a shortstop batting .314) and John Lannan (3.45 ERA)?

Johnson and Willingham are hitting. Jordan Zimmermann, with 75 strikeouts and 21 walks in 75 2/3 innings, is one of the game's most promising rookie pitchers. There are other decent notes, like kid hurlers Stammen, Ross Detwiler and Shairon Martis, 5-3 when he was sent back to Class AAA. Yet the Nats have been outscored by 102 runs, proof that their record, while slightly unlucky, is mostly deserved.

Hindsight's cheap but also necessary. Former GM Jim Bowden, with Stan Kasten looking over his shoulder and the Lerners pinching the purse strings, built an incoherent roster. For three years, the Nats had the first premise of a plan -- "develop young starting pitching" -- but little else. So, they haphazardly made any opportunistic transaction that seemed to "add value," usually at minimal expense. The result was a mess.

To illustrate, the Nats came to spring training this year with 11 viable outfielders, five fighting for starting spots and six more capable of filling out the bench, but not one relief pitcher in the organization who had ever saved 10 games in a season. Hello, chaos.

What do the Nats need?

They have no bullpen. That's Problem One. Every trade talk starts there, looking for a major league-ready prospect or a setup man. Next, before Morgan arrived in center field, the Nats also had no defense -- anywhere. Even strengths, like Zimmerman and Johnson at the infield corners, have crumbled with 19 errors.

Before Morgan, the Nats also had no offensive speed; they depended on homers and hot hitters, but couldn't manufacture runs in close games. Their top three base stealers had 17 thefts. Morgan has 21, three in four games as a Nat.

As if that weren't enough, the Nats have few situational hitters. Zimmerman was excellent as a rookie; now, he thinks he's past such humble duties. Put a man on second with nobody out or a man on third with one out and no Nat changes his plan of attack. Bunt for a hit, hit-and-run, squeeze? The Nats? You could die waiting.

Finally, the Nats have no leaders, though Dunn tries in his way. But they're congenial losers -- no fights in the clubhouse or on the field. In part, Morgan was acquired for his infectious energy just as Dukes was sent down, in part, because you never knew when he'd decide not to run hard on a grounder or short-leg a ball in the outfield.

As Rizzo acknowledges, Johnson is the Nats' most tradable piece. If he isn't dealt for bullpen help, it's a mistake. His salary, $5.5 million in his walk year, is reasonable. He's healthy with an .807 OPS and has batted No. 2 for a Yankees pennant winner. The Giants, Red Sox and Mets are potential suitors. Though Johnson is a smooth first baseman, his range has shrunk. The skids have already been greased for Johnson to go. With Morgan at leadoff, Guzmán, who will be hard to trade with $8 million on his '10 contract, can move back into his natural No. 2 hole, instead of batting sixth, as he is temporarily.

Beimel, the steadiest vet in the Nats' pen, will, ironically, probably be dealt, perhaps back to the Dodgers. He's on a one-year deal. He's proven and has value. That's always been Plan A. Set him free. If tough old lefty Ron Villone regains his form, he could be a situational specialist for a contender and might fill out a deal. Wish him well. The Nats got lefty Sean Burnett in the Milledge deal because they assumed Beimel and/or Villone would leave.

Just as water travels downhill, rumors run to the highest point of possibility. So Dunn or Willingham are often mentioned as future AL designated hitters. Sensible. But why should the Nats blow up the No. 3-4-5 stability that they have in the center of their perfectly presentable lineup -- Zimmerman (five-year deal), Dunn (signed for '10) and Willingham (under club control through '11). They hit right-left-right. They should hit 90 homers a year as a group (44 entering last night). All have high career OPS. Listen to offers, but demand a lot.

As for others, somebody should want Harris, the bumptious 31-year-old utility man, who belongs with a winner, and perhaps even mildly disgruntled Ronnie Belliard, who's being showcased now in hopes somebody remembers he started for the '06 champion Cardinals.

Trades seem easy in theory, but any team that might want Johnson could also take a shot at Aubrey Huff or Adam LaRoche. And the players the Nats would want are prospects, in the minors or on the fringes of rosters, whom only the most ardent fans know. The contenders who make trades don't give up the name players who got them there.

Still, it's time for Rizzo to take the "interim" off his own job title and do the job he's spent his whole life preparing for. Watching Morgan for just four days, as he catches balls no other Nat center fielder could grab, reaches base six times and steals three times, should give Rizzo confidence.

The Nats have a core of promising young starting pitchers, a serviceable middle of the batting order, a shot at Stephen Strasburg and perhaps another No. 1 overall draft pick next year. The rest is a mess. To make this team equal to the sum of its parts, you have to change the parts. A wheel or two would be nice.

07-08-2009, 01:14 PM
We are five days away from the All-Star break, and the Nationals have won 24 games. Twenty-four. Think about that for a moment.

Their All-Star nominee is Cristian Guzman. Think about THAT for a moment.

But they do have Thomas Boswell. So that's nice for them.

07-08-2009, 01:26 PM
The Nats are rushing those young pitchers. It will be interesting to see how or if they survive in the majors. They are a long way from being competitive. Unless a near miracle happens in the next couple of years I would expect them to have a few more 100 loss seasons.
I haven't heard how or if any negotiations are going on with Strasburg. They really need to sign this number one pick. They didn't last years and they look to be a sure bet to have next years overall number one pick.