In baseball there are two teams with the recent finger prints of Stan Kasten all over them. There are the Washington Nationals that are in many ways still being run by the Kasten Plan. The Plan was put in place by Stan Kasten when he became president in 2006. I remember listening to him on the John Riggins Show laying out what his plan entailed and what the timeline would be. The basic fundamentals of the plan were to build through the farm system, make good trades for young major league talent, and finally to add key free agents at positions of need.
The plan was thwarted a bit by the incumbent GM, Jim Bowden, who had his own plan and it involved getting toolsy players with high upside and troubled history. Imagine what Nook Logan’s speed could do if he could get on base, or Wily Mo Pena’s power if he could connect with a baseball, or the total package that Milledge and Dukes could be if they could keep their heads in the game. None of this high risk/high reward acquisition worked out for Jim Bowden and the Washington Nationals and the final straw was when Bowden was implicated in a money skimming scandal in the Dominican.
It was at the beginning of the 2009 season that Stan Kasten finally had his man to put his plan into action. Mike Rizzo’s first duty was to start cleaning out the Bowden players. Elijah Dukes didn’t last past Spring Training and later in the season Lastings Milledge was traded. Mike Rizzo inherited a bullpen that was put together with no thought or care and slowly but surely he was able to fix that, but as he was getting rid of a lot of Bowden players in the majors he was hanging onto young prospects like Danny Espinosa, Jordan Zimmermann, and Ian Desmond. 2009 was also the year Strasburg and Storen were added to the system.
2009 was the worst season the Nationals have had at the major league level, but it was also the season where Mike Rizzo laid the groundwork for the 98 win 2012 NL East Champion Nationals, and he did it following the plan Kasten expressed in 2006 when he took over as the president of the Nationals. Since Kasten departed at the end of the 2010 season and the first thing the Nationals did was to break the plan and sign a big time free agent in Jayson Werth. The intelligence of that deal can and will be debated in the seasons to come, but with players like Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper crediting Werth with helping them grow as players it is hard to deny that Werth brings some ability of leadership. Beyond that Werth’s ability to take and foul off pitches and his skill on the base paths are small but important skills that can help young players grow quickly to productive major leaguers.
Aside from the Werth signing the Nationals have stuck closely to the plan of Stan Kasten. They got to a point where it looked like they were close to winning and traded for a young pitching star in Gio Gonzalez, a young centerfielder lead-off type in Denard Span, and added key free agents at places of need in Edwin Jackson and more recently Dan Haren. It is tough to look at how the Nationals were built and to remember those early blue prints of Stan Kasten and not give him some credit.
There is something that gives me pause and wonder what Kasten is doing and if he isn’t conducting his own experiment within major league baseball. After leaving the Nationals it wasn’t long until Kasten was linked to a group rumored as the front runner to buy the Dodgers. That group has since bought the Dodgers for $2 billion, received a $6 billion TV deal, and gone absolutely nuts in spending money. The Dodgers have gone from a high but reasonable payroll to the largest payroll in baseball largely based on a trade with the Red Sox for Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett, and the record signing of Zack Greinke. Stan Kasten in LA is the maestro of a building process that is the exact antithesis of the plan he laid out in Washington.
What makes this interesting is that there has always been a debate over what is the best way to build a team and that smart signings and building from within are more likely to win championships than teams that throw money around. With the Dodgers and Nationals certain to be picked as early favorites for 2013 NL Champions we may very well be about to find out which method is better, and with both teams locked into players for multiple years this experiment could last a bit. Over the next several seasons the build from within spend wisely Washington Nationals are going to go head to head with the buy everything spend on anyone Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL crown. This is how an experiment happens. The Nationals represent group A following the Kasten plan of building through the draft, trading for young major league talent, and adding free agents at key positions when it is a smart investment while the Dodgers are group B following the anti-Plan of spending on everything and everyone in sight.
It will be interesting to see which team wins more over the next several years, but remember Stan Kasten in many ways is the architect of both these schemes, and his influence on the Nationals and Dodgers is about to give us an interesting case study. The Dodgers are going to try and buy a championship while the Nationals have built slowly and hope a strong foundation will sustain for years to come.