With eight days remaining until major league baseball's trade deadline, there has been a lot of talk from the Washington Nationals about trying to build a championship club as quickly as they can.
It's a fancy way of talking around the subject without revealing their true intentions, but a couple of things can be inferred from the line:
c The Nationals are willing to field a really bad team the rest of the season if it means they have a chance to improve next year.
c Club officials still believe they are closer to contending than most outside observers believe.
Washington fans came to accept that first edict long ago. Wins and losses mean nothing this season, and fans will be willing to part with Dmitri Young and Ronnie Belliard if the two veterans can bring some legitimate prospects in return.
But what about the second point? Is this franchise actually close to contention?
It doesn't appear that way. Not with an inept lineup featuring five underachieving regulars: Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, Ryan Church and Brian Schneider.
Barring a Chicago Cubs-like free agent splurge this winter, the Nationals can't move into their new ballpark and reasonably expect to compete with the Mets, Braves and Phillies for the National League East title in 2008.
Why are team officials so much more optimistic about the franchise's future than they were a year ago? Look to the farm system, which has been completely restocked with pitching prospects. In the last 12 months alone, this organization has added Matt Chico, Garrett Mock, Joel Hanrahan, Emiliano Fruto, Colton Willems, Glenn Gibson, Jordan Zimmermann and Adrian Alaniz while seeing holdovers John Lannan and Collin Balester blossom into studs.
So clearly, the Nationals have reason to feel good about their long-term pitching prospects.
Trouble is, they have only a handful of elite hitting prospects in Chris Marrero, Justin Maxwell and Mike Daniel, and none plays above Class A. These guys won't get a sniff of the District for at least a couple more years.
In other words, Washington shouldn't be building for 2008. It should be building for 2009 and beyond, and the organization would be wise to take that tact with this summer's trade deadline.
The Nationals can't be looking for the quick fix. They need young hitters who might need a year or two to develop but ultimately can become impact players. They don't need more players like Kearns and Lopez — major leaguers with some upside but not enough talent to carry a lineup.
How are they going to acquire guys like that? With a willingness to be bold, to take a chance parting ways with guys who could be part of the plan here but who could also bring in even more in a trade.
Sure, they can (and should) trade Young and Belliard, veterans who are having career years. But they aren't going to get more than mid-level prospects for them.
No, Jim Bowden needs to listen to offers for Chad Cordero, Jon Rauch and Ryan Church. Yes, all three could help this franchise win two or three years down the road. But they also could be used as bargaining chips to land a couple of top-tier hitting prospects, the kind of difference makers that could help this organization win a championship in 2009 or 2010.
Bowden can't just give those guys away. He has notoriously set the bar high in trade discussions, and he should continue to do that. Cordero, in particular, is a 25-year-old closer with 110 career saves and a budding reputation for his ability to pitch out of tight situations.
But if the Nationals are serious about trying to build a championship ballclub — sooner or later — they have to be willing to take a hit now for something that undoubtedly will help them down the road.