Tuesday, July 10, 2007

When word came down last week that Nick Johnson still was feeling pain in his right hip and needed to visit a specialist in New York, Washington Nationals fans might have had two reactions:

{bullet} Compassion for Johnson, who continues to face a long road back from the broken leg he suffered more than nine months ago.

{bullet} Reason to start wondering whether all this might prompt the Nationals to hang on to Dmitri Young instead of dealing the veteran slugger before the July 31 trade deadline.

A top club official, though acknowledging it was a valid question, didn’t hesitate to give what may be an unpopular answer.

“Every move we make will be made with the intention of trying to build a championship team in as little time as we can,” the official said. “Even if that means it comes at the expense of some wins in the short term.”

In other words, don’t be surprised if Robert Fick and Tony Batista are platooning at first base within three weeks.

Yes, that’s a difficult concept to accept. Young has been far beyond everything the Nationals could have imagined when they picked him up off the scrap heap in February. On the field, he’s filled in admirably for Johnson with a batting average around .340 and plenty of clutch hits that have earned him a spot in tonight’s All-Star Game. Off the field, he’s been even better, assuming the role of clubhouse leader while helping make this rebuilding season enjoyable.

But that doesn’t mean the Nationals should throw their grand “plan” out the window and start making moves that don’t benefit the long-term development of this franchise.

No, it doesn’t look like Johnson is going to make it back onto the field this season, at least not until September at best. And no, Washington doesn’t have any other viable option at first base besides Young. Trading him almost certainly would cost the team wins down the stretch.

But since when has this season been about wins and losses? The Nationals were perfectly content to go into spring training with no established starting pitchers and a lineup full of holes. They were willing to lose 110 games if it meant they’d be better off down the road.

If they’re going to stick to that philosophy, they must trade Young for the best offer they can get. The guy’s value will never be higher. Surely some contending American League team in need of another bat would be willing to offer a half-decent prospect or two for his services.

Those who insist the Nationals should keep Young aren’t looking at the big picture. Yes, he will help make this team more respectable in August and September, but then what? As a free agent coming off a fabulous season, he will be primed for a new contract. And even if the Nationals bring him back, where would he play?

The assumption is that Johnson (who is due to make $5.5 million each of the next two years) will be good to go by 2008. So there’s no place to play Young.

But what if Johnson never comes back? The Nationals could trade Young this month and still re-sign him next winter if they need a first baseman. Young, who has thoroughly enjoyed his time in the District and is one of Jim Bowden’s biggest supporters, certainly would entertain the thought.

What the Nationals can’t do is keep their best player for two more months just because he’s made for a nice story or because he might prevent the team from losing 100 games. The story of 2007 was written a long time ago when the organization decided to scrap the short term in favor of the long term.

And unless that plan has changed overnight, the Nationals must trade Young by the end of the month.

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