• HaroldHecuba: Mike Mussina is EASTERN EUROPEAN, not Italian....

Ken Rosenthal wrote earlier this fall that club officials in Washington believe their team is reasonably close to a breakthrough — they blame 2008′s performance on injuries, and think they need just a few pieces to put them over the top. The Nationals want to scoop up a lefthanded slugging infielder, and are rumored to be pursuing Mark Teixeira or perhaps Prince Fielder. (Another potential target is outfielder Adam Dunn.) They’ve already acquired Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham.

But does their hypothesis — that the team is just a Mark Teixeira away from victory — hold water? They had the worst run differential in the majors last year, at -184. (It ties the Cubs +184 for the biggest difference between runs allowed and runs scored.) They lost 102 games. And while they have some interesting prospects, they definitely do NOT have the farm system of this year’s Cinderfellas, the Tampa Bay Rays.

So what do the Nationals need? How about a cold splash of reality, right in the kisser.

Start listing all the pieces the Nationals need to build a contending team, and you don’t know quite where to stop. The Nationals need some offense. They need some pitching, especially starting pitching. They could beef up their defense, too. A little more speed wouldn’t be a bad idea….

Oh, is that all?

Right.

The Nats need, most of all, to keep restocking their farm system. When they were the Expos, they bid adieu to prospects like Grady Sizemore and Jason Bay and hardly got anything in return. They are still recovering from that legacy. The team seemed to be on board with a solid rebuilding plan, but their words and deeds this offseason have caused some to wonder whether they aren’t approaching the mindset the Rays suffered from during their first years as a club — let’s sign big names! Last year was a fluke! Onward Christian soldiers! I really hope we never see the headline on mlbtraderumors, “Nats Attempting to Lure Wade Boggs Out of Retirement By Promising to Retire His Number Also.”

As currently constructed, the Nats don’t have a lot of players they can move for prospects (they’d love to get rid of Austin Kearns, but no one is buying). They don’t have a lot of prospects they can trade for good major leaguers — and why break the bank to scoop up a star, when they’d be right back to where they started? They also don’t have a lot of money to spend on free agents.

So what to do?! Where to start?!?

In a word: pitching. As has been previously noted, the Nats’ offense actually has some promise. But the team doesn’t have much pitching at either the minor league or the major league level. They drafted promising college pitcher Aaron Crow as their first-round pick this year (ninth overall):

Nationals general manager Jim Bowden says Crow is a potential top-of-the-rotation starer who has three solid pitches, including a mid-90s fastball, a good slider and a change-up. Crow was rated the fifth-best prospect by Baseball America.

Now the punchline: They failed to sign Crow because his agents wanted $4 million and they were stuck at $3.3 million.

Now, let’s back up to Mark Teixeira for a minute. Despite the mumblings and grumblings coming from the front office, the Nats may not be as dumb as they look — maybe they don’t think last year was a fluke. Maybe they just want to put some butts in the seats. After all, they have a brand-new stadium that seems to have trouble attracting visitors. Those fans aren’t paying to watch crappy major league baseball while secure in the knowledge that far, faaaar away, the team’s prospects are honing their craft. Maybe the FO just feels the need to talkabout being “close to a breakthrough” and float rumors about signing Texeira or Dunn or Fielder — or even Manny! — to keep their dwindling fanbase interested.

But if they don’t have the money to throw an extra $700k at their top draft pick — a guy their GM described as “a potential top of the rotation starter” — then should they really be throwing money at Mark Teixeira?

I say no. I say that the Nats need to practice a little discipline: get smart about drafting (and SIGNING, for crying out loud!) good pitching prospects (who can often be traded for position players anyway, if you need one) and don’t go spending money they don’t have. Oh and also: trade anyone 30 or over, if not this winter, then at the July deadline. They may not be playing baseball anymore by the time this club is any good.

-What They Need index-

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