- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Washington Nationals, by all accounts, have made great strides this year. On the major league playing field. In their burgeoning farm system. In their scouting and development departments.

All of this has resulted in a big league club that has far exceeded dour preseason predictions and that — even with last night’s 8-4 loss to the New York Mets — heads into this weekend’s final series at RFK Stadium almost certain to surpass last year’s 71-win total.

With construction on a new ballpark nearing completion and the franchise getting ready to ride a wave of positive vibes down the Anacostia River from RFK to Nationals Park, team president Stan Kasten acknowledges his club is closer to realizing success than he thought it would be by now.

But Kasten has long made clear his preferred method for building a championship club. He said from the day he arrived in Washington he doesn’t believe in building a team through free agency, and he said it again yesterday during a lunch meeting with beat reporters.

“Sitting here today, I can’t predict what’s going to happen,” Kasten said. “We certainly will be talking to everyone, that I can promise. But again, I don’t think going after the big free agents is the way to build this team.”

In other words, don’t look for the Nationals to go hard after Andruw Jones or Alex Rodriguez this winter.

Kasten did say that payroll will increase in 2008 — it stood at only $37 million on Opening Day this season, the third-lowest total in baseball — but the increases could come incrementally and be a result not of free agent signings but of trades for established major leaguers.

“We want to add players to this team next year,” Kasten said. “I don’t know how we do it. Perhaps it’s free agency, but more likely I think it would be through trades, either with veterans on the major league level or with prospects. We are not averse to trading prospects.”

After restocking their farm system with a bevy of young players, particularly pitchers, the Nationals are in a position to trade minor leaguers for major leaguers. But nearly every one of their top prospects remains at Class A or below, and as Kasten pointed out: “There’s no obvious help ready to come in here for next season.”

The product Washington has put on the field this season has proved to be more accomplished than expected, with several young pitchers emerging when veterans succumbed to injuries and a core group of position players establishing itself for the long run.

Those players, at the direction of rookie manager Manny Acta, have produced a .500 record (59-59) from May 11 on, a four-month stretch of competitive baseball that has impressed observers near and far.

And though they have been mathematically eliminated from the playoff chase for some time now, they have affected the pennant race in their own way, taking down the Mets in the first two games of this series to help open a window for the surging Philadelphia Phillies to catch the division leaders.

The Nationals could not, however, complete a series sweep last night. Despite taking an early 2-1 lead, they watched as rookie starter Matt Chico gave it back and then some during 51/3 ragged innings, then as reliever Chris Schroder let the Mets pile on during a three-run seventh that put this game out of reach.

Washington had a chance to take the lead in the sixth with runners on first and third and no outs. But reliever Jorge Sosa came on to strike out D’Angelo Jimenez on three pitches, then got Nook Logan to ground into an inning-ending double play on the first pitch he saw.

“I think Sosa won the game for them,” Acta said. “He came in and did a tremendous job getting out of that jam. That could have been the difference in the game right there.”

Logan, the Nationals’ center fielder much of the second half of the season, went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts to go along with the double play. His position, perhaps more than any other, appears to be the most in need for an upgrade this winter. That has led to speculation the Nationals will pursue the premier center fielders about to hit the free agent market: Jones, Torii Hunter and Aaron Rowand.

But if Kasten is to be believed and follows through with his plan, the Nationals may be searching for improvements in an entirely different market.

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