- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

The Washington Nationals have a valid list of reasons why they still value Austin Kearns, and it’s a list that’s publicly recited almost every time Kearns’ worth is questioned.

These are the things about Kearns that no one will dispute: He plays hard, he plays hurt, his defense in right field is generally solid, he comes to the ballpark every day ready to work and he is one of the players manager Manny Acta will never have to worry about setting a bad example.

“I do respect him, and he’s earned that respect,” Acta said Friday. “He’s a pro. He never puts himself in front of the team, and that’s why I respect him. That being said, we have to play the guys that are helping us. … There’s a lot of games left. He’s going to get his opportunity to get some at-bats here and there, and I think things will work out themselves.”

Most of those things, though, have little to do with Kearns’ actual production on the field. And none of them have to do with his production at the plate.

And then there’s this little problem: Kearns, who is making $8 million this season, has essentially become a fifth outfielder. He has started just 20 of the Nationals’ last 45 games before Sunday, hitting .151 during that span with a .174 slugging percentage and grounding into seven double plays. And on Saturday night, at the end of that 45-game stretch, Kearns drove in his first run since May 7.

Now, as the Nationals push toward the halfway mark of the 2009 season and the last month before the trade deadline, the question becomes whether they value Kearns’ intangibles enough to pay him the rest of that $8 million to be on their roster this year.

After a July-long effort to trade Paul Lo Duca and Felipe Lopez last year ended unsuccessfully, the Nationals cut both veterans Aug. 1, eating the remainders of two contracts that cost them $9.9 million.

The Nationals are believed to be shopping Kearns, hoping they can tout his value as a veteran outfielder to a contending team, provided Washington swallows a large portion of Kearns’ remaining salary.

But his albatross of a deal probably will scare off any suitors - he has a $10 million option for 2010 with a $1 million buyout, meaning the Nationals (or any other team) would have to pay him a million bucks not to play for them next year.

However it ends - via trade, release or the Nationals not picking up his option after the year - Kearns’ time in Washington won’t meet a proud end. He was a favorite of former general manager Jim Bowden, who traded for Kearns in 2006 and promptly gave him a three-year, $17.5 million deal. Kearns was in the midst of his best season in Cincinnati - Bowden’s former team - but his production tailed off almost immediately after he got to Washington, stifled first by cavernous RFK Stadium and then by a long, looping swing that led him to a .217 average and just seven home runs in an injury- and frustration-filled 2008 season.

He looked better early this spring after some winter work with hitting coach Rick Eckstein to make some adjustments to his swing. Kearns won the starting right-field job and drove in 13 runs in his first 21 games, leading Acta to hope the Nationals had an improved Kearns to add to their rejuvenated lineup.

But the adjustments have tailed off, and Kearns’ numbers are even worse than last year’s. His value over replacement player (VORP) rating is minus-3.8, meaning the Nationals could have scored 3.8 more runs this season with a readily available replacement player off the street than they could have with Kearns in the lineup. The figure is 734th among 844 players ranked by Baseball Prospectus, just behind Wil Nieves (who is making $445,000 this year) and ahead of only Ronnie Belliard on the Nationals’ roster.

The fault of the Nationals’ predicament with Kearns lies less with him than with Bowden, who was too quick to give a big contract to one of his former Reds players, just as he did with Dmitri Young.

Either way, the Nationals are stuck trying to purge their roster of Bowden’s overspending, and they could do that with Kearns later this summer. He could start some extra games in July as a kind of test drive for possible buyers, or he could get his release. Or maybe he’ll stay in the District the rest of the year.

But it will end soon. Despite all of Kearns’ intangibles, he hasn’t had the production to earn his keep.