National Press Club

Baseball's Woeful Nationals Poised to Contend, Kasten Says

June 26, 2009 | By Bill Miller |

captions in here

Despite its 20-49 won-loss record -- worst by far in the major leagues -- the Washington Nationals baseball team is “not far from just being competitive, but contending” for a championship, its president, Stan Kasten, told a Club Luncheon Thursday.

“I continue to be optimistic about where we’re headed,” said the Nationals’ top executive, who echoed the rosy remarks he made in a previous NPC Luncheon appearance soon after taking his job three years ago. “We are on course.”

That course, he said, “is to develop young pitching.”

Rather than acquiring pitchers through trades or free agency, he explained, the team is emphasizing “home-grown” talent through a beefed-up farm system. He said the strategy is paying off; four members of the team’s current five-man starting rotation are rookies. “And three are only 22 years old.”

Another crop of promising young players in the minor leagues “is right behind” this group, Kasten said. Out of this mix, he said, the team expects to find three solid starters -- perhaps more – who will be the nucleus of the team for several years and around which it can “fill in the other parts” through trades and signing free agents.

Kasten said that the Nationals’ current rotation “is really close” to excelling. But he warned that it takes time for young pitchers to develop.

He likened the Nationals’ situation to that of the Atlanta Braves in the late 1980s, an oft-losing team that, also in his role as president, he fashioned into perennial National League champions. He recalled that young pitchers on those Braves teams – Greg Maddox, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz -- struggled early but went on to careers that likely will lead them to baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Despite his success at Atlanta and his confidence in the Nationals’ future, Kasten acknowledged that “right now, I’m [regarded as] the village idiot.”

Along with his update on the team’s on-field performance, Kasten described the Nationals’ efforts to improve the “customer experience” at its year-old, state-of-the-art stadium. He said the club is working hard to improve its food offerings and to improve friendliness of ushers. Kasten also emphasized the club’s community relations efforts, which focus on programs to reach out to youth.

On other topics, Kasten said:

  • He is a big fan of beleaguered Nationals manager Manny Acta, who is rumored to be on the firing block. Acta “has the potential to be a long-term manager here. That’s my hope.
  • Recently drafted San Diego State University pitcher Stephen Strasberg, one of the most heralded collegiate pitchers ever, “will be a great addition to our current crop” of young pitchers.
  • It is a “cheap headline” to accuse the Lerner family, owner of the Nationals, of stinting on spending money on the team by restricting its payroll. “No one is more competitive than the Lerner family.”
  • Season ticket sales are down from last year because of the traditional dip in attendance in the second season of a new stadium, the team’s losing record and the poor economy.
  • The steroid era in baseball “is largely behind us … we’ve gotten a handle on it.”