Nationals still searching for identity

The Washington Nationals have gone through numerous incarnations since their big move across the border from Montreal in 2005.

They've been a scrappy, overachieving club under manager Frank Robinson. They've handed out oversized checks to Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman, and provided a supportive environment for Dmitri Young to briefly revive his career. They've dressed in cramped, decrepit quarters at RFK Stadium and reveled in their plush, new environs at Nationals Park, with its breathtaking view of the U.S. Capitol from the upper deck.

They've been hailed as a potential marquee franchise in the making, only to spend four of the past five seasons holding up the bottom of the National League East.

And now it's come to this: Four years after adopting a new nickname and a new identity in a new city, they're still not sure what they want to be when they grow up.

As the hot stove season gets into full swing, the Nationals have an air of futility about them. Fresh off a 59-102 season -- the worst in the majors -- they have lots of work to do to become competitive and rekindle interest in the Washington market. Yet obstacles abound.

For starters, the Nationals play in one of baseball's most competitive divisions. They're up against the world champion Phillies, the Mets and their new ballpark, the Braves and their tradition and knack for developing young talent, and the Marlins, who have a front office that's always adept at changing course on the fly.

While the Washington organization has pledged unswerving commitment to the draft and the concept of building from within, there's not much help on the way. The Nationals are only six months removed from failing to sign their top draft pick, Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow, who opted for a deal with the independent Fort Worth Cats.

So where do the hapless Nats turn for inspiration? Try Colorado and Tampa Bay, where the Rockies and the Rays went from afterthoughts to the World Series the past two autumns.

"I think if we add a couple of pieces and continue to develop our young guys, you never know when things will happen in baseball," manager Manny Acta said. "Over the last two years, with the Rockies and Rays, baseball has shown you that when you think you're in, you're out. And when you think you're out, you're in."

At the moment, the Nationals are the embodiment of "out." Washington's offense ranked 28th in the majors in runs and homers this past season, and the pitching staff posted the game's 24th-best ERA. Along the way, the Nats endured losing streaks of nine games in April, nine games in July and 12 games in August.

Injuries were a significant factor in the losing. Closer Chad Cordero and eight of Washington's nine Opening Day starters spent time on the disabled list. Guzman, the team's shortstop and leadoff man, was the only National to make it through the season unscathed.

Amid the gloom, the Nationals took solace in the stray silver lining. Lastings Milledge, who was supposed to play a complementary role in the second or seventh spot in the batting order, spent 107 games total in the third, fourth and fifth spots and hit a respectable .268 with 14 homers and 24 stolen bases. Lefty pitcher John Lannan, an 11th-round pick out of Siena College, amassed more quality starts than Derek Lowe and A.J. Burnett. Catcher Jesus Flores made a positive impression (that .296 on-base percentage notwithstanding), and Steven Shell, Mike Hinckley and Joel Hanrahan showed promise in the bullpen.

Three weeks ago, general manager Jim Bowden made a trade that elicited mostly positive reviews. In exchange for second baseman Emilio Bonifacio and two minor leaguers, the Nats acquired starter Scott Olsen and left fielder Josh Willingham from the Marlins. Upon introducing the two players at a news conference, Bowden conceded that the organization was "embarrassed" by the events of 2008.

Here and there, the Nationals are making their way into a hot stove blog or rumor mill. They've been mentioned as a potential destination for Mark Teixeira, a Severna Park, Md., native, and Burnett, who lives in Baltimore in the winter. But many industry observers -- from front office people to agents -- have a hard time seeing a fit, conceptually or economically.

For starters, the Nationals are bad enough that a single star isn't going to vault them into contention. The elite free agents have their pick of Boston, the two New York teams and the two Los Angeles-based clubs, and don't have to settle for a rebuilding project in Washington.

The Nationals also ranked 19th in the majors in attendance this past season in their new ballpark. Their television and radio ratings are horrendous. They just recently reached a settlement with the District of Columbia over $3.5 million in unpaid rent. And the Lerner family, which owns the team, has made its fortune in the real estate business. You don't need a Wall Street Journal subscription to know there's been a bit of a downturn in that market of late.

"Where are the resources within the organization that could allow them to do these things?" said an agent for a prominent free agent. "Let's say it's Teixeira and a $20-million-a year deal-plus. Where do they get $20 million to all of a sudden add to the payroll? I don't care if you get all of Severna Park to come see him. Does that make any sort of business sense whatsoever?"

In a brief interview with ESPN.com, Bowden said the team remains committed to scouting and player development, and will focus on only free agents who are young enough to contribute for several seasons.

"It's more about the opportunity to continue our long-term plan, rather than stopgap measures," Bowden said.

The Nats need an established starting pitcher or two and a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy in the middle of the order. They already have a surplus of right-handed outfield bats in Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena, so that rules out Manny Ramirez and Pat Burrell. And they're focusing more on first base than the outfield, so you can forget Bobby Abreu and Raul Ibanez as well.

One possibility is Adam Dunn, a Bowden favorite from their days in Cincinnati. Dunn, 29, is younger than most of the other free-agent hitters, so he could be a nice sidekick for third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He's good for 40 homers, 100 RBIs and a .380 on-base percentage every season, and he won't require any draft picks as compensation now that Arizona has declined to offer him salary arbitration.

In addition, Dunn's price might be dropping in a down market. Two NL officials wondered whether Dunn would command even a Jose Guillen-caliber, three-year, $36 million deal from a team other than Washington.

"[The Nationals] might have to pay a bit of a premium for him to go to a team that has not won recently," one of the executives said.

The Nationals also have explored every conceivable trade option, from Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, James Loney and Joey Votto at first base to Zack Greinke in the pitching market. But it's a long shot when it comes to whether they have the stockpile of young talent required to make such a deal.

Baseball America, which ranked Washington's farm system 30th in the game in 2007, placed the organization ninth overall this past spring. The best bet for a quick breakthrough is pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who is 15-5 with 205 strikeouts in 187 innings in the minors. Infielder Chris Marrero and pitcher Ross Detwiler, while highly regarded, might take a little longer to develop.

The scouts love outfielder Michael Burgess' potential, but he's a classic boom-or-bust type of player. Burgess, 20, has 35 homers and 222 strikeouts in his first 670 minor league at-bats. Justin Maxwell, another outfielder with big tools, just can't seem to stay healthy.

In spite of his 132-191 record with the Nationals, Acta has displayed admirable calm and poise amid the turbulence. The Nationals recently overhauled the coaching staff, retaining only pitching coach Randy St. Claire while bringing in former big leaguers Marquis Grissom and Pat Listach, and former Cubs, Padres and Mariners manager Jim Riggleman.

It's no secret in baseball circles that club president Stan Kasten has chafed over his role in the hierarchy. In late September, both Washington newspapers, the Post and the Times, described Kasten as frustrated with his lack of organizational clout. According to the Post, Kasten has had difficulty coping with the Lerner family's "hands-on, tight-fisted management style."

One baseball executive who's friendly with Kasten told ESPN.com that the Nationals' president was "miserable" in his current role. Kasten declined an e-mail request for an interview but recently insisted that he'll be back with the organization in 2009. Nevertheless, his name has been bandied around in Toronto in conjunction with the Blue Jays' vacant CEO position -- in part because of his friendship with interim CEO Paul Beeston.

Bowden has his detractors, but his energy and willingness to make moves will never be called into question. "He's non-stop, thinking and looking for players wherever he can find them," Acta said. "I've found that out being around him the last two years. He's 24/7 baseball."

Heaven knows it will take long hours at the office to change the mood in Washington. On a positive note, the Nationals are looking forward to the June draft and an opportunity to select San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg, a Scott Boras advisee who could be seeking a payout in excess of $10 million.

The Nationals might lack talent, short-term hope and any semblance of industry buzz. But at least they have their dreams.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.