- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

SAN DIEGO — In boldly deciding not to deal Alfonso Soriano before Monday’s trading deadline, the Washington Nationals sent a message to the rest of baseball that they wouldn’t give away their best player for what they felt was less than market value.

Along the way, the Nationals might have sent another message to anyone who was watching: Despite our best-laid plans to rebuild this franchise the slow-and-steady way through a revamped farm system, we reserve the right to make changes on the fly.

The non-trading of Soriano may not completely alter the stated rebuilding plan of team president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden, but it could tweak the process despite the front office’s insistence that won’t be the case.

“No matter what trades you could have made [Monday], nothing’s going to help this organization more than the steps … our organization is making on scouting and player development,” Bowden said this week. “That’s the pool of players you have to improve.”

With a minor league system widely regarded as one of baseball’s worst, the Nationals face huge challenges in developing homegrown players. The anticipated trade of Soriano for two or three top prospects figured to help speed that process, until no rival GM was willing to give up so much for a two-month rental player.

So Kasten and Bowden decided to hang on to Soriano and attempt to re-sign the star left fielder to a multiyear contract that easily could exceed $70million.

That’s no slam dunk, by the way.

“There’s certainly nothing certain about what will happen after this year,” Kasten said. “We know what Alfonso has done and what he means to our team and what he means to our fans. If there’s a way for us to keep him, consistent with building a championship team, we’ll do that. But we’re always going to look at the best alternatives.”

Even if they’re able to re-sign Soriano, the Nationals face plenty of other obstacles in trying to build a contender for the long haul. A re-signed Soriano — along with Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Brian Schneider — would give the franchise a solid foundation of position players.

But that doesn’t address the club’s dearth of quality pitching. The situation has become so dire, one top club official said this week there isn’t a single pitcher in the major or minor leagues right now he would be comfortable building a staff around.

John Patterson often has been touted as the club’s ace of the future, but after a breakthrough 2005, the right-hander’s career was sidetracked by a nerve injury in his forearm that has essentially turned this into a wasted season. He’ll be back in 2007, but Washington can’t count on him as it planned to.

The rest of the starting rotation is uncertain as well, filled either with underperforming veterans (Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas Jr., Ramon Ortiz, Pedro Astacio) or unproven rookies (Mike O’Connor, Shawn Hill). The bullpen, perhaps the team’s biggest area of strength a season ago, has been reduced to closer Chad Cordero and a revolving door of young arms, none with more than two years of major league service time.

There are essentially three ways Bowden can look to improve his pitching staff during the offseason: (1) trade established position players for established pitchers, (2) shop around for bargain-basement free agents as he did the last two winters and (3) spend a bundle of money on one of the few top-tier free agents who will hit the market, headlined by Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt.

That last option, while tempting to those who believe the Nationals with a re-signed Soriano could have a chance at contending next season, wouldn’t be endorsed by all.

“You have to stay the course,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Don’t take these off-road turns and then try to find your way back to the main road. Stay the course. It takes a shorter period of time if you have Alfonso on the team. That’s one less situation you have to worry about. You can focus on other situations and know that in the meantime you have a respectable ballclub. But the main thing is the long haul.”

Part of Washington’s initial plan to build for the long haul, though, didn’t pan out. The club was expected to trade away veterans for prospects, but aside from the deal that sent 39-year-old Mike Stanton to the San Francisco Giants for a 19-year-old pitcher, it didn’t happen.

That wasn’t so much a product of the Nationals’ reluctance to make trades as it was the reluctance of opposing GMs to part with their own top prospects. For decades, big-market clubs could be counted on to deal young talent in return for proven veterans who could help them win a World Series immediately.

Not anymore, much to the surprise of people like Bowden, who said he had never seen this much reluctance to trade in his 22 years in this business.

“The Yankees do not want to give up prospects, and they didn’t,” Bowden said. “Neither did the Red Sox. So the game is changing, and you have to adjust with that. You’re going to have to find different ways to accomplish it. … You’re going to have to be a bit more creative, you’re going to have to think out of the box, and you’re going to have to adjust with the game.”

Even if that means altering a long-term rebuilding plan that wasn’t supposed to need tweaking so soon.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the https://www.washingtontimes.com/sports>Sports Page

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