Sources said Kasten has become increasingly frustrated, and some suggested he could step down as president, though most said his departure was unlikely.
Kasten, however, insists he has a “great personal relationship with the entire Lerner family” and said everyone in the franchise is working hard to rebuild the team.
“We’re all moving forward, and I am committed to making this work,” he said. “We’re here, we’re all doing the things we need to do. We’ve made great progress in some ways and have had disappointment in others. But that’s all part of the building process. We’re all aware of it, and we’re all charging forward.”
Mark Lerner, the most visible member of the family, declined to be interviewed for this article. Through a team spokesman, the Lerners released the following statement:
“The Washington Nationals ownership group - including Stan Kasten - is proud of its management, team and employees. We have asked much of them in their first 26 months and they have performed, including opening a new ballpark, building a young and improving Major League roster while growing one of the best Minor League systems in baseball, and beginning to brand the ‘National Pastime in the Nation’s Capital’ after its absence from Washington DC for more than 30 years. Working closely together we intend to catch our breath after setting an exhilarating, but exhausting, pace for the last two years, and will continue to develop a team on the field and off that get the Nationals closer to being the kind of contender that our hometown deserves.”
The road to 100 losses
Upon talking control of the organization in the summer of 2006, the Lerner family and Kasten made it clear there would be no shortcuts toward on-field success. The Nationals needed to be rebuilt from the bottom up, with scouting and player development taking priority over attempts to win on the major league level.
But when a Washington team that was widely expected to be baseball’s worst in 2007 surprised skeptics by finishing 73-89 and playing .500 ball from mid-May through September, the organization’s timetable perhaps was sped up a bit.
General manager Jim Bowden made several roster moves last winter designed to help the club win more games in the short term, signing veteran free agents Paul Lo Duca, Aaron Boone, Rob Mackowiak, Johnny Estrada, Willie Harris and Odalis Perez to one-year contracts totaling $10.4 million. Bowden also re-signed veterans Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard and Wily Mo Pena to multiyear extensions in July 2007, committing another $17.5 million to those three players through 2009.
Combined with the acquisitions of promising young players like Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, the Nationals entered 2008 believing they could reach the .500 mark.
“On paper and talent-wise, this team out of spring training was better than the team we had here last year,” manager Manny Acta said.
But after opening the season in grand fashion with Zimmerman’s walk-off homer highlighting Opening Night at Nationals Park, Washington quickly fell to the bottom of the National League East standings and has remained there since.
The supposedly improved lineup lost Zimmerman, Johnson and Austin Kearns (among others) to injuries for prolonged stretches, leaving behind the majors’ least-productive offense.
The team’s biggest strength since it arrived in town, its bullpen, crumbled after Cordero hurt his shoulder on Opening Night. Luis Ayala endured a miserable year before getting dealt to the New York Mets, and Jon Rauch was traded to Arizona.
And of those veterans signed by Bowden during the winter, only Harris, Boone, Perez and Belliard made significant contributions to this year’s team. Lo Duca, Mackowiak and Estrada were released in midseason; Young and Pena were saddled by injuries.