- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

ATLANTA. — The Washington Nationals are sending starting pitcher Tony Armas Jr. to their class AAA club in New Orleans for three starts to recover from the groin pull he suffered at the end of spring training.

That’s a big improvement over last year, when the Montreal Expos would have had to send Armas across three time zones to Edmonton to face Class AAA minor league hitters.

Whoever winds up owning the Nationals might want to even make it closer next season ? maybe just down the road from Washington.

The Nationals could have a huge opportunity to improve their farm system and make a big marketing move if the nasty negotiations taking place in Richmond between the city and the Richmond Braves - Atlanta’s top farm club - for a new ballpark result in the Class AAA club leaving town.

That would leave an opening the new owners of the Nationals should pounce on - establishing a Class AAA team there. “That would be huge,” one club official said.

The Nationals’ presence in the District has altered the talks between the city and Braves officials for a new ballpark in the Shockoe Bottom section of the city near the James River. Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Paul Woody speculated last month the city has other options if the Braves leave town.

“Who knows, perhaps the Nationals will find it appealing to have their AAA team just down the road, a two-hour drive away, depending on traffic, of course,” Woody wrote.

Appealing - Darn right they would.

Team executives would love the ability to market the Nationals all the way from the District down to Richmond, enhancing the Virginia presence created by the Class A Potomac Nationals (the former Potomac Cannons) in Woodbridge.

In terms of baseball, it would be huge because it would allow the team to keep a closer eye on prospects and make call-ups easier. In the case of Armas, for instance, it would allow him to stay close to the major league club and still get his rehabilitation starts.

“It helps an organization to have its farm system as close as possible,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “That means you can call a guy up quicker, and he will be more available to you. In Edmonton, we weren’t going to get him on that same day. That was tough. In New Orleans [where the organization is in the first year of a two-year agreement], you can call him during the day and have him at night for the game. If it was closer, that would be even better.”

General manager Jim Bowden agreed.

“I have always believed that in an ideal world, you want your farm system close to the major league club,” he said. “If you want to send a player to rehab, he can go there in a car and come back and still do his side work [pitching workouts] with the major league team. Armas will have to stay there in New Orleans and do his side work. If the team is close by, he could do his start and come back and do his side work in front of the major league staff.”

The Nationals could do that by sending Armas to Potomac or to their Class AA club in Harrisburg, just two hours away. Many teams, such as the Orioles, who often send players to Class AA Bowie or Class A Frederick for rehabilitation assignments, try to keep the players close by sending them to a lower level. Robinson believes it is not in the team’s best interests to indulge the players that way.

“Clubs are starting to get into that when they have the lower class clubs nearby, the players want to go there instead of farther way because they want to commute,” he said. “So they wind up pitching against Class A teams. That is good for them personally, but it is not good for the team and what you are trying to accomplish to get that pitcher ready to face major league hitters. The players want to go there. When I was in Baltimore, we used to say we were going to send them to Rochester [the Orioles’ former Class AAA team], and they would ask instead to go to Bowie, and we would wind up letting them go.”

Richmond, though, would be an easy trip down I-95 for the players and a city the Nationals would love to embrace.

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