Nationals have to find some direction

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

VIERA, Fla. – From the practice fields here, it's a good 10 minutes back to the clubhouses, a couple hundred yards of that walk along well-traveled Stadium Parkway.

The Washington Nationals go clattering along the sidewalk in packs of threes and fours, the long red line a captivating scene on a wind-whipped Friday.

The early afternoon parade is wonderfully folksy in a once-upon-a-spring-training way, and commuters honk their horns and passengers wave as most of the Nationals pretend not to hear or see them.

They did lose 102 games last year.

By the looks of things, it's not getting much easier.

In fact, as you watch the Nats trudge off toward a fifth season in D.C., blue duffels hoisted over their backs, you wonder if the organization really is getting anywhere.

The Nationals don't win ballgames, they don't fill their new ballpark (apparently they don't even pay the rent on their new ballpark), they accessorize their roster with misfits and then they don't avoid some very humiliating episodes. What they really need is stability, followed someday by credibility.

In the meantime, when the Yankees are done with that big, funny tent, they can ship it over here.

As the Nats took their first steps of spring, contract negotiations with Ryan Zimmerman were settled hours before a scheduled arbitration hearing, but not before a report of strained relations between the club and its best player. ("Just nonsense," team president Stan Kasten snapped.)

As they first made their way to those back fields, their opening day starter from last year – Odalis Perez – was threatening a holdout. A laughable play, granted. But still, he's threatening.

Then, the real jolt: One of their better prospects – a Dominican shortstop named Esmailyn Gonzalez – had aged almost four years overnight, a $1.4 million gaffe made 2½ years ago by GM Jim Bowden and lieutenant Jose Rijo, according to Sports Illustrated. Both had been questioned in the federal investigation into the skimming of Dominican signing bonuses, and now this – it's starting to pile up.

So now there is the possibility Bowden is in trouble, if not because of the latest nastiness, then because he's put together a losing team nobody has much interest in watching. That sort of thing – a GM fighting for his job – can find its way into a team's water supply. And the affable Rijo is an immensely popular figure here, particularly among the Latin players.

As for Gonzalez, now named Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo, Kasten said, "That's not something I'm going to be talking about until the next time I tell you guys I'll be talking about it."

Got it?

Amid that paperwork, the Nats are – or shortly will resume – shopping first baseman Nick Johnson, because they added Adam Dunn to a roster already thick with outfielders and first basemen. There is a sense the Nationals signed Dunn to appease a fan base that had its heart set on Mark Teixeira, but hey, the guy will work some counts and hit some home runs. Their money. Though by June they might have wished they'd spent it on pitching.

"I don't really worry about it," Johnson said. "I just go out and play."

A larger issue than Dunn – and by larger I mean by six pounds or so – they're still paying Dmitri Young, who'll make $5 million on what in essence has become a minor league, throw-away contract.

So, Nats camp has a strange, unsteady feel to it, barely a week in. OK, they're going young. As Kasten said, "We've decided to go with young pitching, and that's a little bit of a crapshoot."

And they should be healthier. As manager Manny Acta said, "Everybody but the bat boy went on the DL last year." (The unsinkable Acta is one of the Nats' many moving parts: His contract is not guaranteed beyond this season).

But, you know, there's still a question of whom they want to be. Is this the club that drags along the issues of Perez, Young and Elijah Dukes? Does it need that?

Do the Nats continue to bear up and recover from the embarrassments of reckless decisions? Or do they make their changes now?

Take Perez.

It's a small thing. Meaningless, even, as far as the overall strength of the organization, as far as building even a decent starting rotation. But the team and the player agreed to a contract. Now Perez, before running a single sprint, has demanded they renegotiate.

The club has not budged. And yet, the situation lingers.

"It's odd," Kasten said. "It's a first for me. I don't know what's behind it."

Well, management could sit around and try to figure that out. Or, it could release Perez and tend to the pitchers in camp, the ones who showed up on time and went to work. There's still value in that, right?

That's a good team to be, right?

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