[August 3rd] -- I really enjoy reading the many Nationals' message boards that thrive along the Internet. Though the sites themselves differ in both character and content, the posts remain pretty constant. Some fans see a team that can do no wrong, while others are spot-on with both their praise and their criticism. Then there is that third group, those who find both fault and stupidity within every move that the team makes.
One of the most repeated complaints from this latter group can be summed up something like this: "The Nationals will never be good because the Lerners are the cheapest owners in baseball. Instead of signing superstar free agents, they cut the payroll and now force us to watch a crummy team."
I must admit that I was very surprised that the Nationals stayed out of the free agent market last winter. I figured that that the new owners would want to impress the team's fans with their commitment, especially considering how Bud Selig and his minion owners destroyed most of the goodwill created by that magical 2005 season. I wasn't sure how the team could possibly compete in the coming years unless they became the major buyer of high priced free agents. The farm system, so badly depleted by years of both incompetence and apathy (not to mention several horrid trades by Omar Minaya), held no hope for a turnaround anytime soon. I didn't see how the amateur draft could possibly restock the farm system in time.
What I didn't foresee, however, was the newly found competence of GM Jim Bowden.
In a very short time, Bowden surrounded himself with some of the best baseball minds available. This wasn't something I expected of him. A younger and less secure Bowden seemed unable and unwilling to share the spotlight in Cincinnati, and would never have hired men like Davey Johnson, Jose Rijo, Barry Larking and Mike Rizzo.
Now, in the team's third year in Washington, things are looking pretty good. "Trader Jim," the guy who never met a trade he didn't like, now is more reluctant to make a trade just for the sake of trading. A year after getting reamed by fans and pundits alike for not trading Alfonso Soriano, he held his ground yet again this year. It's becoming quite obvious. He really does have a plan.
Is the farm system close to being on par with the other major league teams? No, but it's getting there, and it's getting there much quicker than I thought possible. Though there isn't much quantity still, there certainly is some quality. It seems that it was just a few months ago that we were collectively moaning and groaning about the lack of pitching in the farm system. Look at these names and tell me if things have changed:
Ross Detweiler (GCL) 0-0, 2.25
Garrett Mock (various) 1-4, 4.67
Hassan Pena (NY-P) 4-2, 2.41
Glen Gibson (NY-P) 3-0, 0.75
Colten Willems (NY-P) 3-0, 2.36
Adrian Alainz (NY-P) 6-0, 0.98
Jordan Zimmermann (NY-P) 2-1, 2.0
Jhonny Nunez (Sally) 3-6, 3.82
Zach Baldwin (Sally) 3-1, 2.8
Sharon Martis (Carolina) 10.7, 4.56
These are the team's best pitching prospects, and all have joined the Nationals under Bowden's watch, and all are found at various levels of the team's Class 'A' designation. Other than Colin Balestar, there is no one pitching at either 'AA' Harrisburg or 'AAA' Columbus that will be part of the Nationals' future.
If the rule-of-thumb holds true, that 25% of pitching prospects will eventually prosper in the big leagues, then the Nationals currently have in their farm system two or three future starters.
Admittedly, there are fewer position players of consequence down on the farm. But there are a few who have the potential to make a difference. Sam Burgess, Chris Marrero, Mike Daniel, Smiley Gonzalez, Bill Rhinehart and Kory Casto have shown that they have the potential to one day play in Washington.
Very soon, Jim Bowden will enter the free agent market with a fist full of cash, looking to fill holes in an otherwise solid lineup. The reason Bowden's mantra has been "pitching pitching pitching" will then become clear. Good pitchers are few and far between - and are very expensive - in the free agent market. He seems intent to stock his rotation with farm hands while using the team's available cash to land power bats, something that is much easier to do.
When will it all come together? My guess is that the Nationals will turn the corner in 2009 and will begin to contend thereafter.
Without question, it's not a matter of "if," but rather "when." The Nationals will become a force. When that will be depends on how quickly the kids mature.
But it'll be fun watching, and waiting.