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Starting pitching: The future is now?

Welcome back from the beach, the mountains, the in-laws, wherever. Congress is back in session, Capitol Hill is awake again, Journal staff has reassembled after a long weekend of leaving me to run things myself (including doing payroll, which I can't stand). Must mean there's some pennant races going on. If you're interested in that kinda thing, grab the $.35 edition and read Sheinin's piece breaking stuff down. We could be in for a good month.

And then, out at RFK, there's the current battle for fourth in the National League East. Nationals up one after yesterday, two more to play here against the Marlins. (Those of you who were gone for the weekend feel free to go back and check the John Patterson posts, which provide some good debate.)

A couple of housekeeping items before we get to the point of today's post.

First, the Nationals officially announced their new "Culinary Operations Partner", which I will call their new COP, but which really means their new concessionaire. I wrote about this in a notebook during the last road trip, but a group called Centerplate will replace Aramark. Centerplate serves Yankee Stadium, San Francisco's AT&T Park and Seattle's Safeco Field. Because the Journal staff is a bit groggy after the long weekend, I will just cut and paste the first two paragraphs of the team's official release, which has a canned quote from Stan Kasten and a punctuation error at the end of said canned quote:

The Washington Nationals have named Centerplate as its partner to reflect the culture and cuisine of Washington, D.C. and attention to guests needs at their new state-of-the-art ballpark.

Centerplate, one of the nation's leading culinary and merchandise management companies, has been awarded the exclusive contract to oversee the culinary and merchandising operations for the new Nationals Park which will open for the 2008 season in southeast Washington , D.C.

"The concessionaire's reputation for fine cuisine and service is widely recognized throughout the industry," commented Stan Kasten, President of the Washington Nationals. "We are looking forward to having Centerplate as part of our team as we are committed to providing our guests with the best and most enjoyable fan experience at the new Nationals Park ,"

Thus, people interested in consuming fully cooked hot dogs can breathe more easily.

Also, from the community service department: The Nationals delivered the school supplies they collected during their August Back to School drive to Kimball Elementary (the Southeast school they adopted last year) this morning (or at least they were due to do that). Luis Ayala and Mike Bacsik were due to help dropping the stuff off.

OK, on to the meat of this post. I've been sitting on some stuff from Jim Bowden for a couple days. I was going to work it into the gamer on Sunday for Monday's paper, but when Zimmerman collected his seventh walk-off at-bat, I scrapped that plan and wrote about him. But a few of us were talking to Bowden before Sunday's game. The whole issue of Jesus Flores/Brian Schneider came up - and I'll get to that at another time (even though Bowden said of Flores, "He's been a major leaguer," and said of Schneider, "I consider him the best game-caller in the big leagues").

We got to talking about how the final month might play into determining the 2008 starting rotation. Bowden:

"I think Shawn Hill's been very impressive. I think John Lannan's been impressive. I think Joel Hanrahan's been impressive. I think those three guys have shown the potential of being in our rotation in the future.

"We have others that have had up-and-down outings. Like Bergmann. Certainly we hope he has a good month. [Aside: This was before yesterday's seven-inning, one-run performance.] Chico has a chance to compete. Tim Redding has got another month to prove that what he's accomplished so far is not a fluke. A lot of people have a lot to prove."

Bowden said because there is that pool from which to choose, the Nationals aren't in position of having to rush a Ross Detwiler or a Collin Balester next year. [And on the Balester question, I know some people were concerned that he wasn't called up for September. Keep this in mind: Balester, Baseball America's top Nats prospect coming into the year, is only 21. He went 4-10 with a 3.89 ERA between Class AA Harrisburg and Class AAA Columbus this season. Detwiler, though he has far less pro experience, is also 21 (three months older than Balester). The point is that with pitchers drafted out of high school, there's plenty of time to wait even though it seems like they have been in the system a long time. College pitchers are generally more prepared to make a quick rise (see Cordero, Chad).]

So I asked Bowden about the (lousy) crop of free agent pitchers. A sampling:

Kris Benson, Paul Byrd, Matt Clement, Bartolo Colon, Josh Fogg, Casey Fossum, Freddy Garcia, Livan Hernandez, Jason Jennings, Jon Lieber, Kyle Lohse, Rodrigo Lopez, Wade Miller, Eric Milton, Odalis Perez, Joel Piniero, Kenny Rogers, Curt Schilling, Carlos Silva, Julian Tavarez, Brett Tomko, Kip Wells, Randy Wolf, Jaret Wright, Victor Zambrano

Wow. Did anyone else feel the urge to stick their index finger down their throats? I mean, once Carlos Zambrano and Mark Buehrle signed extensions with their respective Chicago teams, this is what's left.

Bowden: "You saw us draft Detwiler, Smoker, McGeary and Jordan Zimmermann and (Brad) Meyers with our picks for a reason. The market's not a surprise. The free agent pitchers are [available] after '08 if they don't sign. [Hello, Mr. Santana, have a seat!] That's when they're going to come out. We knew they weren't going to come out this year. We knew there were center fielders who were going to come out this year. But Zambrano and Buehrle, to think they weren't going to sign was just stultifying.

"You're going to have to produce from within. You're going to have to figure out other solutions somewhere else. You're going to have to draft pitching. It's just the way the market is."

Bowden went on to say that young, minor league pitching is now the most valuable commodity in baseball. Teams simply won't give it up.

"The key is that no one trades the young ones anymore," he said, "not even for superstars. When you can't trade Soriano straight up for an 'A' ball starting pitcher." At this point, I mentioned Clay Buchholz, who happened to throw a no-hitter the night before.

"Buchholz," Bowden said, "who they turned us down for, straight up. Philip Hughes, turned down straight up for Soriano. [Minnesota's Matt] Garza turned down straight up for Soriano. When you see that happening, you better understand, you're not going to be able to trade for that, you better get them yourself. That's why we went out and got McGeary and overpaid McGeary."

OK, this is a very long-winded way of letting Bowden say that the Nationals are not going to delve into a lousy free agent pitching market. They could try to trade for starting pitching or take a flyer on a guy with a good track record coming off an injury (like Jennings), and they will definitely fiddle around with the six-year minor league free agent market (where they unearthed Redding and Hanrahan), but otherwise, pay attention over the next month, because this is what you got.

And this is a really, really long-winded way to get to my question. This team is still pledging to increase payroll significantly, perhaps by $30 million. Some of that will happen naturally (arbitration raises, perhaps a long-term deal for Zimmerman, a $4.5 million bump in Dmitri Young's salary, etc.). Where do you spend that money?

Welcome back from the weekend. Mull that over. And I'll talk to you from RFK.

By Barry Svrluga  |  September 4, 2007; 11:42 AM ET
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