- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Nationals went out of their way to promote the following in the game notes during spring training:

“Feeling a draft: The Nationals enter the 2007 First-Year Player Draft with five of the first 70 picks, one year after having four of the first 70 picks.” The Nats went on to point out that two of those picks, the 31st and 67th, are compensation for the loss of Alfonso Soriano in free agency.

In public relations, this is known as accentuating the positive, and the positive for the Nationals in their first full season of ownership by the Lerner family and Stan Kasten is the future. Unfortunately for fans digging into their pockets to pay for tickets at RFK Stadium this season, the future is not now and the present looks dismal.

Expect the franchise also to tap into a past it has nothing to do with (the club originated in Montreal in 1969) and promote the history of Washington baseball in what is anticipated to be the team’s last season at RFK Stadium.

Anything to direct attention away from what is happening on the field.

No one will say this, but the 2007 Nationals are part of the plan for the future. That means being the worst team or among the worst teams in the major leagues this season so that the club will get the coveted No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft.

The Nationals have assembled what they believe is an all-star team of scouts. The club gears nearly every move to giving those scouts as many opportunities as possible to select young talent to rebuild the farm system, which had been one of the best in baseball.

When the Nationals added 10 scouts in November, scouting director Dana Brown said the focus was on “scouting and player development.” In an interview this spring, general manager Jim Bowden encouraged fans to pay close attention to player development.

“Watch our farm system and how all of our young players are developing,” Bowden said. “Today’s fans follow that. They read Baseball America and pay attention to it on the Internet. They can drive to Potomac to see them, drive to Hagerstown to see them.

“You’re not going to see it in the won-loss record, but at least we have been honest with our fans. I think that is better than misleading them. If we had gone out and got three $3 million pitchers and say we are going to compete, you would be misleading them. We have been honest. We are rebuilding. We are doing it through development and scouting. It will take some time, but stay with us and watch our good young players. Ryan Zimmerman is a treat to watch every day.”

He’s right about that. Zimmerman is coming off a tremendous rookie season (20 home runs, 110 RBI, .287 average). He’s had a tremendous spring and appears on the verge of becoming one of the National League’s elite players. He will be a treat to watch and will go some ways to ease the pain at RFK Stadium.

But there will be a lot of pain this year, and not even Ryan Zimmerman, the Racing Presidents or celebrations of the last season of baseball at RFK will ease it.

The Nationals have assembled a starting pitching staff that, for the most part, consists of journeymen and failed major league prospects from other teams. They could have three quality starters — John Patterson, Shawn Hill and rookie Matt Chico — but both Patterson and Hill are coming off arm and shoulder injuries and neither has a great record of staying healthy. Chico, meanwhile, has never pitched above Class AA.

Then they have a lineup that, with the loss of Soriano to free agency and Nick Johnson recovering from his broken leg, will have to make up the 172 RBI and 219 runs those two provided to last year’s squad that finished in last place in the NL East and 10th among 16 teams in runs scored.

If you look at the possible pitching matchups in each of this year’s 162 games and then match up the lineups as well, it adds up to a 54-108 season. The best chance the Nationals have to perform better than that is their new manager, Manny Acta, who has been steadfast in his refusal to accept the dire predictions and may just have the right touch to turn the 2007 Nationals into overachievers.

“We are going to use that as a fuel,” Acta said. “A lot of those guys in there have a lot to prove, and we are going to use it. We still respect everybody’s opinion, but we would rather be optimistic than realistic.”

Maybe optimism will win out over realism.

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