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[May 28th] -- So, the Washington Nationals are again playing baseball reminiscint of the style that allowed the team to win twelve consecutive games about this time last year. The fundamental mistakes that plagued the team are now gone. The starting pitching, once among the worst in the major leagues, is now playing as if they are one of the best. The offense is once again strong; the "big boys" are mashing the ball while the supporting players, guys like Royce Clayton and Damian Jackson, are producing at a high level as well. If the team leaves "well enough" alone, and there are no serious injuries from now until October, they might, just might, get close enough to .500 to make the season "successful enough."

But to accept mediocrity at this point will push back the team's championship frontier by a half-decade, maybe more. The Nationals have several very marketable players who can help today's team come close to a 500 record, or they can be traded for multiple prospects who can create something very special about the time the new ball park opens, perhaps a little later.

Stan Kasten has already said that the free-agent market, at least for the foreseeable future, is a non starter. With a minor league system void of real talent, the team's only real help is to trade roster talent today in hopes of sewing the seeds for a stronger tomorrow. The problem is, two of their mid-level stars, Nick Johnson and Brian Schneider, will have played out their contracts by the time the young kids mature, leaving them both very expensive and relatively old. Schneider will be 34 and Johnson 32 when their contracts expire. They should be traded now. Johnson is on pace to hit 38 homers and drive in more than 100 runs while keeping his on base percentage at the top of league statistics. How quickly would, say, the Atlanta Braves jump at the chance to trade for Nick and replace their below-par first baseman, Adam LaRoche? The Braves would send the Nationals two solid prospects for Nick at least, perhaps even throwing in a mid-level guy who would be buried in the Braves far system but who could make a difference in D.C.? And Brian Schneider is considered the premier defensive catcher in the National League, a guy who could instantly turn a pretender into a contender with his game calling skills. Jose Vidro, who is the leader in batting average, could bring another three prospects, while Alfonso Soriano could bring four. Livan Hernandez, now that he's pitching well again, could garner three prospects as well. By trading those five players now, the Nationals would help themselves in two ways. First, they could get enough prospects to stock an entire minor league club and second, save millions upon millions of dollars in payroll that could be used to further shore up the minor league system.

There are players on the roster today that could provide enough offense to keep the team somewhat competitive. Dayrle Ward and Matt LeCroy could combine for 20 home runs at first base. Marlon Anderson and Damian Jackson would be steady enough at second, and there are enough outfielders to at least man every position. Catcher would be a difficulty, and the team would have to get someone in return to take over for Brian -- perhaps a vet nearing the end of his career.

The pitching staff, just weeks ago among the sorriest in the National League, is looking stronger and stronger each day. Mke O'Connor seems to be a keeper, and Shawn Hill, once top prospect, has shown that at least he is capable of pitching at this level. Add a healthy John Patterson and Tony Armas Jr, and promote Jon Rauch from the bullpen, and you have, on paper at least, a pretty solid starting rotation. And if Ramon Ortiz continues to pitch well, he could be traded for prospects too.

Add these potential prospects to the two first round draft picks due to be plucked from the ranks of the amateurs in a couple of weeks, and the Nationals could emerge towards the end of the decade as one of the very best teams in the National League. How bad will things be in the meantime? Well, the Nationals (as they are constituted now) are probably headed for a 73 win season. Without all the studs, they may win 65.

It's worth it, isn't it?

No. It's not worth it. It's not worth it because we need to develop deeper fan roots/loyalties now with a credible product. And it's certainly not worth it to trade our bargain-priced gamer veterans like Nick Johnson and Brian Schneider. All these great prospects you're talking about getting need to have some skilled, "good makeup" veterans around the clubhouse to show them how things need to be done. And we need to give people reasons to turn up at RFK the rest of this season and next. Having a real shot at .500 for the short term matters to this club's future. I don't buy the idea that just because we're not going to contend, it doesn't matter if you win 80 games or 60. Those 20 games won or lost on the margin each of the next two seasons could well be the difference between an interested and engaged fan base and having a third MLB team wither on the vine in Washington for lack of fan interest.
But, if Washington fans aren't "baseball savvy" enough to sweat out 2-3 hard years, then do we really deserve the team? Look how Denver and Phoenix embraced their teams during those first, horrible, expansion seasons. Is D.C. by virtue of losing two previous baseball teams, someohow "above" growing pains? I don't think so. Although I too worry at what the fan base's response might be to this kind of decision, it's the only option considering that Kasten has put the "kibosh" on free agents. By keeping Nick and Brian, and trading away everyone else (which is going to happen,) we'll become like Pittsburgh and Kansas City, putting together teams made of other team's spare parts each and every year. That didn't work well for us this year (Pedro Astacio, Ramon Ortiz, Marlon Anderson, Damian Jackson, Matt LeCroy, etc..), why would we expect it to work well in the future?

My first choice is to rebuild NOW with free agents -- the fans of D.C. deserve no less. But it's becoming obvious that this ownership isn't going to throw it's money around to fix the past (like those gosh-awful parking garages remaining where they are)so the only question is this: Do we want a below average team for the forseeable future, or are we willing to bite the bullet for now in return for a talent-ladened team around 2010 or so? Remember, Kasten is unwilling to bring in vets, but is quite willing to sign our young stars to long term deals. So, once we get the studs on the playing field, we'll keep 'em.

That said, thanks for your view sbrent -- greatly appreciated, and thanks for stopping by. I saw your post over at the ballpark guys -- I've been thinking the same thing for the past couple of weeks. Most MLB teams have up to 100 active blogs; we have about 10 or so. It's tough to give our blogs our maximum effort -- mine takes far more than 20-25 hours a week to do the research, read all the Nats' stories and then write my own. I too miss those that went dark, especially "Banks." He was great.
I guess I've never understood why it has to be such an either/or proposition. Just because Kasten isn't going to go hog-wild, I don't think payroll will really be a problem. I don't feel like I've even seen a categorical statement he wouldn't even authorize a slight bump-up for one or two free agents that made sense at a reasonable price. Why is there no middle ground here?

Thanks again for all the time you invest in a great blog here!
The Dodger's GM was quoted in one of the Los Angeles papers over the weekend (I think it was the Times but I'm not sure) and he mentioned that he was sure that Soriano was heading out of town come July because the new owners would be "slicing payroll."

That's pretty definitive to me.

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