Wanted: Pitching, pitching, pitching

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The Washington Nationals stunned and impressed plenty of people around baseball on Thursday when they dealt five players — including young relievers Gary Majewski and Bill Bray — to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for two established major leaguers — Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez — plus former No. 1 draft pick Ryan Wagner.

Contrary to most everyone’s belief, the Nationals were willing to part with young players, pitchers nonetheless, even as they embark on a rebuilding phase.

On the surface, it’s hard to find fault with general manager Jim Bowden’s bold move. As Bowden put it: Who wouldn’t trade a couple of middle relievers for two bonafide, everyday position players? And it’s not like Kearns and Lopez are over the hill. Quite the contrary: Both are 26, and neither are due to become free agents until 2009, and each figures to be the kind of player a team can build a competitive team around.

But before Bowden is handed the Executive of the Year award, remember this: The trade only works if it meshes with the subsequent ones the Nationals are expected to make in the next two weeks.

Kearns and Lopez should have an immediate impact on a Washington lineup that has been sluggish at best. Throw those two players in with Alfonso Soriano, Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman, and this team suddenly has the makings of a legitimate lineup.

But don’t forget the adverse affect the trade had on the Nationals’ pitching staff, which is suddenly in shambles.

The starting rotation has been a mess all season, with Livan Hernandez having a poor season, John Patterson a non-entity and Tony Armas Jr., Ryan Drese, Brian Lawrence, Pedro Astacio and Zach Day all suffering serious injuries.

Now, the bullpen is in disarray. Even with Majewski and Bray, that unit hadn’t performed anywhere near to the high standard it set in 2005. Now there isn’t a single proven arm out there besides closer Chad Cordero.

The difference has been noticeable already. Washington’s pitching staff was tagged for seven runs in back-to-back losses to the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday and Saturday, failing to take advantage of the 23 combined hits from the offense.

This season, of course, is already a lost cause. So perhaps it’s not worth agonizing over the current state of the pitching staff. But it is worth agonizing over the long-term state of that same staff, because that picture is just as muddled.

The only starters still under the Nationals’ control heading into 2007 are Hernandez, Patterson and rookies Mike O’Connor and Shawn Hill. Hernandez is starting to look like a lost cause, and Bowden would love to find a taker for him before the trade deadline. Patterson is back on the disabled list, could remain there the rest of the season and may have to go through a major rehabilitation program if he needs surgery. O’Connor and Hill have had their moments, but neither is considered a future staff ace.

So Bowden’s task over the next two weeks is simple. He needs to adhere to his own favorite phrase and acquire “pitching, pitching, pitching.” It’s impossible to build a true, long-haul contender without it.

Which makes the possible trade of Soriano all the more vital now. Soriano remains the only available player on Washington’s roster capable of commanding a top pitching prospect or two. Jose Guillen isn’t going to command one, and neither are Hernandez or Vidro.

The market for Soriano remains unclear. Though it appears like at least a half-dozen teams are in the running, few are letting it be known publicly. The Los Angeles Angels claim they haven’t had any Soriano discussions. Baseball sources in Detroit say the Tigers have only minimal interest.

Everyone, however, agrees that Bowden will take this thing down to the wire, right up to the July 31 deadline, hoping he can get at least two opposing teams in a bidding war for the star outfielder/second baseman.

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