- The Washington Times - Monday, June 1, 2009

Here are five signs you root for a really bad baseball franchise.

1. The team’s bullpen has the highest ERA in the sport’s history.

2. Daniel Cabrera opened the season as the No. 3 starter.

3. In the past, the following players have hit cleanup more than once: Aaron Boone, Wily Mo Pena, Daryle Ward, Marlon Anderson, Carlos Baerga.

4. Matt Chico, Micah Bowie and Jason Simontacchi once were trusted members of the starting rotation. And those were considered the good old days.

5. Players who have been rejected by everyone else turn to your team for one last shot at redemption.

You should focus on that final point because more than anything it has come to define the Washington Nationals the past five years. No other franchise has so willingly scoured the trash heaps of baseball in the vain hope of stumbling upon lost treasure. And no other franchise has so regularly failed to locate those hidden gems.

Last week’s release of Cabrera — who in only eight starts thrust himself into contention for the title of Worst Nationals Pitcher Ever — underscored this organization’s failed roster-building tactic since it arrived in town.

Good franchises don’t sign scrap-heap pitchers and anoint them as their No. 3 starters. And they certainly don’t hand those guys $2.6 million to go 0-5 with a 5.85 ERA.

Nor do good franchises try to cobble together a 25-man roster filled with former All-Stars long past their primes, career minor leaguers trying to hang on just a bit longer and young players with some legitimate talent but highly questionable character traits.

Yet this is what the Nationals’ roster has looked like every season since 2005. As much as the organization touts its plan to build from within and promote prospects from its system, there have been far more Odalis Perezes, Rob Mackowiaks, Damian Jacksons, Johnny Estradas and Robert Ficks wearing Washington jerseys than there have been Ryan Zimmermans, John Lannans, Jesus Floreses and Ross Detwilers.

A winning franchise with a deep farm system can’t be built overnight. The Nationals were a mess when the Lerner family purchased the team in 2006, and the only way to field a somewhat respectable roster was to bring in some of those bargain-basement picks.

And on a handful of occasions, those signings proved fruitful. Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco made a difference in 2005. Ramon Ortiz had a nice 2006. Dmitri Young was an All-Star and the NL comeback player of the year in 2007.

But there have been way more misses than hits in that department. And moreover, those misses have cost the Nationals millions of dollars that could have been used in a far more productive manner. In the past 18 months alone, Washington has spent $24.35 million on Young, Cabrera, Paul Lo Duca, Mackowiak, Pena and Estrada and gotten what exactly out of them? Nothing but a lot of ridicule from the rest of baseball, which sees this franchise as a laughingstock.

It’s time for the Nationals to stop trying to be baseball’s reclamation project. It’s time to stop taking chances on players who likely won’t live up to their potential, who don’t have any good years left in them and who don’t have the right attitude to succeed at the big league level.

It’s time for the Nationals to start acting like the “model franchise” they told everyone they would be three years ago. That means they should be fielding a roster made up of only two types of players: prospects who have come up through their own system or have been acquired from other clubs and legitimate free agents still in the peak of their careers who actually provide some bang for the buck.

It’s time, plain and simple, for them to stop handing $2.6 million to guys like Cabrera, then eating their salaries less than two months into the season.

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