Friday, January 19, 2007

Management, Starting Pitching & The Bench

You never really now what you are going to get from Sports Team Owners. You could end up with a quiet, reserved, very businesslike person like the Washington Wizards, Abe Pollin. Or, you can get the very outgoing, fan friendly and always available, Ted Leonsis--Owner of The Washington Capitals. Both, decent, respected men, inside and outside the sports venue.

Unfortunately, you can also end up with Washington Redskins Owner, Daniel Snyder. Never available to the public, always looking to make a big splash, wasting money, and, by just about all accounts, has destroyed one of the finest sports franchises in the National Football League, for the sake of his own personal glory (and greed).

Its within that Professional Sports Team environment, The Lerner Group won the rights to own Our Washington Nationals. For nearly 7 months now, with them in charge, the entire Nats Organization is in the process of an overhaul. A New Stadium is rising on South Capitol Street. For the first time in years, the once forgotten franchise has direction. Yet, The Lerners's personna is debated just about each and every day in the Nats Blogs. Some fans like their business plan, their patients and willingness to watch this club grow from the ground up. Others, want to see Ted Lerner throw some more money around--maybe, not only spend some on acquiring new players, but expend more cash (Goodwill Money) on the New Stadium---Exterior Design, Parking for the masses, other things that fans want to see--not necessarily what the owners have planned.

As I continue my conversation with Todd Jacobson, Washington Nationals Beat Writer for The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star, I asked Todd just what type of Owner has he witnessed, thus far, with The Lerner Group?

"Their persona is quiet, stay in the shadows sort of thing", Todd replied. "Which is probably a good way to run a franchise as opposed to the way the Redskins franchise is run. Snyder is more hands on. I think The Lerners have done a good job getting the right baseball people in place and saying 'Hey, do your own thing, this is why I hired you. Stan (Kasten), you do your thing. Jim (Bowden), you do your job. Everyone do your job.' And, maybe, if there is a crisis, they (The Lerners) get involved."

So, we are not going to, most likely, see a "Hands On" Owner, making their own marks on every single corner of The Nationals? And, does the direction flow from The Lerners down, or from Stan Kasten up. Overall, who is making the calls?

"During Manny Acta’s Press Conference, Mark Lerner was there. He was hesitant to talk to anyone. Now, I don’t know how much of that decision (hiring Acta) was his decision. I know he met with Manny, but, I feel he was going to let Stan and Jim make that call. I think that is a good approach to have. Remember, Stan is a part of the ownership group, he has a lot of sway in the philosophy of it all. I don’t know which came first (The Lerners Business Acumen), or the idea of what became known as “The Plan” (Kasten's). Stan certainly had it working in Atlanta. I think the Lerners share that same vision of building the right way."

Yet, despite all their efforts to make the Nationals, at the very least, look professional, there is a bad public perception of them, by many fans?

"I know they have the impression of being cheap. I’ve talked to some executives (from other clubs). It’s a common misconception among me, you, and fans, even before this year, that owners come in and sink a lot of their personal money. That usually does not happen. They are going to use the revenues they have. Kasten talks right now how, right now, at RFK, the revenues really are not there. The revenues they do have, they are sinking into other areas. Being objective, I like the way they are going. Building from within is the way to sustain success."

But, is it a smart move, to trust that fans will continue to come out to RFK in 2007, when the team may well be bad, just because, you (The Owners) are assuming everybody will want to position themselves for seats in the New Stadium?

"It’s a way of doing business. I think people are going to want to get the Season Tickets for 2008. I remember when Camden Yards opened and how exciting that was. There will probably be a similar type of excitement. I don’t think they (The Lerners) necessarily need to punt the season. Its going to be a tough year. Attendance will be affected by it. They are not going to be very good. The starting pitching is going to be real tough, really bad, unless Tim Redding (Free Agent Signee) becomes an All-Star. A surprise player or two is what they are hoping for, and the reason for bringing 30 some pitchers to camp in February. You know, Don Sutton might pitch (Hall of Famer, now Nats TV Color Analyst, laughing)."

Todd continued on this subject: "In this town (Washington, DC), people will want to be in the new stadium. There is going to be a ton of excitement involved in that. That excitement will carry a lot of weight this year, and they are really pushing it. I am not sure if that’s going to be fair to those that stick it out (what fans are going to go through with a potentially bad team). But, it’s a sound business model. Kasten knows from his experience in Atlanta, how interested people were, going to New Turner Field--how interested fans are to be in A NEW STADIUM."

Some believe The Lerners are looking for a quick turnaround (sale of the team), your thoughts?.

“[The Lerners] know, they are going to take a little bit of a hit this year. They could have gone out and signed free agents, maybe not increased the record, but, put a couple of stars out there. I don’t get the impression they are in it for the short term. They are talking 10 years down the road on some things. You are not going to sink a lot of money into scouting and player development when you are just in it for the short term."

"If you look at the way the Orioles are trying to do it, their executives would probably admit it’s the wrong road they pursued the past ten years or so, trying to fill holes, put your thumb in the dike and it bursts in another place. [The Orioles] have never put together a solid team. “The Plan” as its been explained to me, seems pretty sound. Of course, it could blow up, if none of your prospects work out. If you don’t get a Chipper Jones (Atlanta Braves Star drafted during the Kasten, Atlanta Days), then it doesn’t work out. "

"The Plan" of course has been the most debated idea among most every Nats Fan. Todd believes we all need to give it a rest for a while.

"Its hard for anyone to criticize the plan, right now. You can criticize it in three years, when Chris Marrero (First Round Draft Pick, 2006) is out with a torn ligament in his arm, Colton Willems (1st Round Pick, 2006) is out of baseball. You can criticize it then, but as long as their scouts are making sound decisions, it seems like the way to go--start from the ground up."

With The Lerner Group remaining steadfastly in the background on all baseball operations, Team President, Stan Kasten has become the Management Face of the Franchise. During most every home game, you see Mr. Kasten continually moving about the stadium, nothing seems outside of his reach, if an improvement can be made--something Todd has noticed many times over the last few months of the 2006 season at RFK.

"In terms of fans, at least he will listen. He’s stubborn. He’s got his own ideas. But, I don’t think he’s not too stubborn, or too proud to see an idea, and not want to incorporate it. He’s a smart businessman. There is no doubt, Stan’s a doer. He gets things done, its impressive. He gets a lot of things done. I wish I had that kind of energy. I wish I knew what he drinks in the morning (both of us laughing). He seems to care about the customer experience. There were times, when during batting practice, he would be talking to the security guards in a huge group. He’s a stickler for details, which (his attention to detail) makes all of your experiences (Fans) better.”

Of course, for the working press, Stan is always available, just not always willing to give them the news.

"Its tough not to like Stan, he’s a gregarious, outgoing guy. He’s funny, and he seems to get what I do, and what you guys do (bloggers). The only frustration sometimes is information." (he can talk in circles like no one I have ever seen-SBF commenting). "Its impressive--really", said Todd. (But--SBF Here-- he doesn’t want to lie to you). "No—but he doesn’t want to tell you either." (both of us laughing now). "He’s actually in the press box a lot. I was really surprised at how much he is in there. How much he is around us (the press), talking with us. He’s accessible, but a lot of no comment, no comment. 'Stan, How the Sean Black Negotiatons? No Comment, No Comment.’---happens all the time."

As Todd touched on earlier in the conversation, "The Plan" has limted payroll, lessening the chances for the Nats to piece together a reliable starting rotation for 2007. Virtually none of the potential game starters can claim any consistency, or durability in the Major Leagues.

"There is going to be about 15 guys, if you throw in (Levale) Speigner, all the minor league guys you can think of—(Matt)Chico, (Garrett) Mock. Its unbelievable how many people are going to be competing for a job. Its too bad that Brandon Claussen (just signed by Washington last week) is not going to be healthy, or he would be thrown into the competiton. The crazy thing is, their bullpen is going to be pretty good. Maybe they should start with Luis Ayala, have him pitch an inning or two, just reverse it (the pitching order-laughing). But seriously, you saw what a bad starting rotation did for the Nationals last year, it could be worse this year (that's too mind numbing to thing about--SBF)."

At this point of the off season, 41 total pitchers will be in camp for Washington next month in Viera, Florida--a stunning number!

Speaking of the Bullpen, what do you think about Zechry Zinicola, a potential closer moving quickly up the ladder for the Nats from Arizona State University?

"His rise is unbelievable. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him in the bullpen (this year) The only thing is, if the bullpen was as wide open as the rotation, Zinicola would almost be a lock. But, the bullpen is actually petty good. Zinicola may benefit by a half season in AAA. They (The Nationals) don’t need to rush him, as there is not the (immediate) need for relievers, as they do for the starting rotation."

Todd also believes, it was a smart decision to stay away from this Winter's Free Agent Market for pitching.

"I think it was a good decision to wait it out. The pitching out there was awful. $10 Million per season/ 5 years for Gil Meche (by The Kansas City Royals)--the money these pitchers did get. If you are AJ Burnett (Toronto Blue Jays Starter), you have to be thinking you got a good deal 2 years ago. Look now. Meche basically got what Burnett got (Burnett is a far superior talent to Meche). It was a crazy off season. I can’t fault the Nationals for not wanting to dip into that stuff. Maybe, going against the grain is a good philosophy. Do what others are not doing-take a creative look at things."

Obviously, this team has holes, not only in the starting pitching department, but also, on the bench with everyday reserves. Yet, I read the other day, Manager Manny Acta is looking to start the season with 12 pitchers on the 25 man roster. Is this a smart move, when you know the team must keep Rule 5 Draftee, (Catcher) Jesus Flores on the Major League Roster all season long, or lose him back to the New York Mets. All the while, you have limited multi-talented position players on that bench?

"I think the bench is one of the least of their worries (laughing). Manny is looking at it this way. If you don’t have the starting pitching, you are going to be dead anyway. Its not going to hurt having that 12th pitcher. I can see a swing guy, like (Free Agent signee) Josh Wilson, to be a valuable guy. A guy that can play a couple of positions in the infield. But, of their worries—the bench is the least of them. Certainly a concern, but its more of a concern for the Cardinals and the Tigers (Contenders).

In light of yesterday's signings, it may appear now that The Nationals could have underplayed some of the off season moves and may well be worried they do not have enough decent multi-talented players that Manny Acta needs to make "In Game" decisions. Another DC opportunity to throw whatever you can against the wall to see what sticks.

Which got Todd and I chatting about the quality of the 2006 Nationals bench. In Section 320, we talked alot about how Washington Bench would be great last season, if the Nats ever made it to the playoffs. They didn't as we all know. The Press noticed this oddity, as well.

"It was weird last season when the Nationals were improving their bench during the off season. Signing (Robert) Fick, Darlye Ward and Marlon Anderson—improving their bench, but not your starting lineup and pitching. The bench is important. Having a guy like Marlon Anderson is great. But, its great on the Dodgers--not as great on the Nationals. Fick was an All-Star. I really liked Marlon Anderson as a player, before he got got to DC. Never really got the attention he deserved—he’s a very professional hitter, a gamer up there (at the plate). Defensively, he has no arm, but, he's a good baserunner and smart player. Ward, here’s another guy without a position. Its amazing how this guy can not get into the American League (he’s a DH--SBF notes). Yeah, he is. He’s the perfect guy for that job. The Nationals do not need a DH."

Tomorrow in Part 4--The everday lineup (you might be surprised at Todd's comments); What's the real story behind Ryan Church with the Nats?; Nook Logan, Alex Escobar & Austin Kearns; and, did Washington just make a change in the medical staff for a reason?

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