Two weeks into the Washington Nationals’ season, this much is clear: 2007 is a lost cause. Everyone’s worst fears are being realized, and a team that decided to go young and spend little money on the major league roster is headed for 100 or more losses.
This was done partly by design. No, the Nationals’ front office didn’t want to field the worst team in the majors, but neither did it want to overspend on mediocre free agents in an attempt to squeeze a couple more wins out of a team that already was destined to finish last in the NL East.
The organizational focus, as everyone knows, is on the future, specifically 2008. Once the Nationals move into their exquisite new ballpark along the Anacostia River, all will be better.
Or will it?
Baseball can be a tricky sport. Unlike the NFL or NBA, in which a team can go from worst to first in short order, that’s not typically the case in the major leagues. Championship clubs aren’t built overnight. It takes years for a top-notch farm system to start churning out a roster full of quality players, and barring some Yankees- or Cubs-like spending spree, teams just can’t restock their entire major league club via free agency in one offseason.
The Nationals have said all along they intend to build their championship club from within, investing millions of dollars in scouting and development and eschewing free agency until they’re one or two pieces away from winning. And in that regard, they have done an impressive job in the nine months since the Lerner family took over ownership. Seven of the organization’s top 10 prospects (Chris Marrero, Colton Willems, Esmailyn Gonzalez, Zech Zinicola, Glenn Gibson, Matt Chico and Stephen King) were drafted or acquired in the last year.
But most of these players are a long way from Washington. Most are still teenagers and likely won’t make their major league debuts until 2010 or beyond. The only elite prospects who could be part of the picture in 2008 are Chico (already in the big leagues), Zinicola and No. 1 prospect Collin Balester.
So while the Nationals are touting next season as a milestone in the franchise’s development, fans should be prepared to endure another sub-.500 club. The view will be much nicer inside the new ballpark, but the product on the field may not be much better.
That makes 2009 a potentially make-or-break year for this organization. The lure of the new ballpark will keep attendance and interest high next season, but the honeymoon will be over quickly if the Nationals don’t start fielding a winning team.
Problem is, there likely will be only a mild influx of talent from the minor league system by then. The real studs won’t be around for several more years, leaving the organization facing a critical question: Will they be willing to increase payroll dramatically and add top-tier free agents in an attempt to field a winner sooner rather than later?
That would seem to go against “The Plan.” Stan Kasten loves to point out his Atlanta Braves didn’t sign their first big-name free agent (Greg Maddux) until 1993 two years after they went to their first World Series.
This just in: The Nationals won’t be going to the World Series in 2007 or 2008. If they genuinely want to make a run at it in 2009, they’re going to have to be willing to pay good money to field a competitive team while waiting patiently for that restocked farm system to produce major league stars.
If not, the 2009 Nationals might bear a striking resemblance to the 2007 Nationals, and that’s the last thing anyone in this town wants to hear.
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