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Nationals’ recipe needs time to brew

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VIERA, Fla. -- Jim Bowden wouldn't call it a first, but the Washington Nationals' general manager couldn't think of a precedent.

Opening training camp with four spots in the rotation up for grabs? Unheard of.

"I've never seen it or heard of it," Bowden said. "I've been in the game since 1984, and I can't tell you before that. But I've never seen it."

So the auditions taking place here at the Carl Barger training complex and, starting today, at Space Coast Stadium with intrasquad games are more than a bit unusual.

"I don't know if that is something you make history over," Bowden said. "But come Opening Day, we'll have five starters probably better than the five we had last year."

That depends. Are we talking about the Opening Day staff of Livan Hernandez, John Patterson, Ramon Ortiz, Tony Armas and Ryan Drese? Or are we talking about the staff of late last season, when it consisted of Ortiz, Armas, Billy Traber, Pedro Astascio and Jason Bergmann?

A more realistic goal for Bowden probably would be a rotation better than one that includes Billy Traber.

Bowden also revealed something else apparently without precedent. He found someone smarter than himself: Nationals president Stan Kasten.

"I've never worked for anyone who was smarter than I am," Bowden said.

Just what Kasten -- a guy who expands the concept of smartest guy in the room to the planetary level -- needs to hear.

Bowden said he has never worked with anyone so driven to do things the right way.

"I've learned a lot from him," Bowden said. "And he does it behind the scenes like he did in Atlanta. We brought over the formula from Coca-Cola. We have a formula here to win. It's not public, because then everybody would do it."

Fans should hope the formula isn't for new Coke.

Part of that formula might prove difficult for fans. They are being asked, after waiting 34 years for major league baseball to return to Washington, to wait a little longer.

Bowden, though, says the product the Nats put on the field in the final year of baseball at RFK Stadium will be worth watching.

"I understand fans' concerns about buying a ticket at RFK this year," Bowden said. "My message would be come with us and watch us build it. Stick with us in the bad times and get ready for the good times. But in the meantime, you get to watch Ryan Zimmerman develop, Austin Kearns develop, Felipe Lopez and Nick Johnson when he gets healthy and Brian Schneider and Chad Cordero and John Patterson.

"It's not like we have zero talent at the major league level. We have a whole bunch of 25- and 26- year-old guys who are going to be with us when we win. We just need to get more of them."

"Fans want to win," Bowden said. "I get that. The way we are doing it, they are going to get to win, whereas if we let them win a little more this year, they are still not going to be happy in two or three years if we're not winning then. They want to win win. They don't want to win and say, 'Great we won 85 games.' They want World Series rings. They want postseason. That's what the organizational goal is. The Lerner family and Stan Kasten are here to win."

Anyone who goes in Kasten's office finds out how much he wants to win based on the number on his wall.

"I go in there the first couple of weeks and see this number 31, and I'm thinking, 'What is the significance of 31?'" Bowden said. "So I asked him one day and he said, 'Being president of three teams in my career, I've been to the postseason 30 times, and all I care about is the 31st time.' He is obsessed with doing things in a first-class manner and winning."

The right way, the new ownership has determined, includes spending significantly less money on the major league roster than in either of the first two years in Washington when Major League Baseball owned and operated the franchise.

But Bowden said the Nats are now in the big leagues in player development.

"We are with the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Dodgers and the Braves," he said. "We are right with them right now. Our major league payroll may not be there yet, but our development and scouting is there right now. We are playing with all the big boys."

So how should Nats fans judge the performance of this franchise since the emphasis is taking place away from RFK?

"You monitor the young players at the big league level and watch how they play the game," Bowden said. "Watch the way Manny Acta manages. Watch our farm system and how all of our young players are developing. Today's fans follow that. ... They can drive to Potomac to see them, drive to Hagerstown to see them. ... We are rebuilding. We are doing it through development and scouting. It will take some time but stay with us and watch our good young players."

The best seats at Harrisburg, Hagerstown and Potomac -- the minor league affiliates within driving distance of Washington -- cost between $9 and $12 if you want to try the generic brand when the Coke gets too bitter to taste at RFK this season.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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