Thursday, September 23, 2010
Kasten's appropriate departure
In hindsight, though, there really was nothing surprising about this announcement. If you had been reading between the lines for the last year, you probably saw this coming.
Kasten's presence, which at times from 2006-09 was so prevalent it became suffocating, dissipated drastically this season. You just didn't see him around as much as in previous years. Once the public face of the Nationals, he had regressed to the background, opening the door for Mike Rizzo to speak for the organization on all baseball matters.
Sure, Stan would emerge from the shadows every once in a while for something big. He couldn't resist participating in the post-midnight Bryce Harper signing press conference. Even then, his inclusion was less about offering information and more about setting Rizzo up to get a whipped cream pie in the face.
The fact of the matter is that the natural progression of the Nationals franchise over the last five years left Kasten more and more marginalized within the front office. The team simply didn't need a
president in charge of day-to-day operations anymore.
Kasten's inclusion as part of the Lerner family's ownership group was mandatory before Major League Baseball would sell the team in 2006. Bud Selig wanted an experienced baseball executive running the organization. And it's a good thing Stan was part of the group. A front office pyramid of Ted Lerner, Mark Lerner and Jim Bowden might have driven this club to even lower depths, hard as that may be to imagine.
The Lerners needed Kasten to help get Nationals Park built and opened. They needed him to negotiate contracts with players. They needed him to orchestrate managerial searches. And they absolutely needed him to run the whole show when Bowden was forced into resigning during the Dominican prospect scandal.
In the end, Kasten's most important role with the Nationals was to handle damage control. He was the guy who had to speak for ownership when something went wrong, whether in the form of losses on the field, declining attendance in the stands or dysfunction in the front office. Perhaps the defining act of his tenure took place from March through August 2009, when he essentially ran the baseball operations department while Rizzo got his feet wet in a position he always aspired to hold but at the time wasn't ready to tackle on his own.
By this spring, though, there wasn't all that much damage left to control. Rizzo had grown into the GM job, and he had hired a support staff full of experienced baseball men who could deal with the minutiae he never wanted to have to worry about. Kasten was no longer needed on the baseball side of things.
He also wasn't needed on the business side of things. Once the Nats announced the hiring of Andrew Feffer as chief operating officer in January, another red flag was raised. Feffer, formerly COO of NFL Players Inc., would start taking on responsibilities that previously fell under Kasten's umbrella. It seemed obvious he was being groomed to take over.
Though the club announced no formal succession plan today, don't be surprised if no one is hired or promoted to the president's title. The chips are set up for Rizzo to be in charge of the baseball side and Feffer to be in charge of the business side, with both men reporting to the Lerners.
Again, a team president really isn't needed. Which isn't to say this organization doesn't need to have one clear voice at the top of the food chain calling the shots. It does. Trouble is, that's been Ted Lerner all along. As much as Kasten wanted to have the power to run things his way, the guy with the largest stake in ownership wasn't going to cede his power.
So Kasten became more of a middle man. He was the liaison between ownership and GM, offering plenty of advice to each side but ultimately beholden to their final decisions.
Was there tension between Kasten and the Lerners? Sure. Was it as bad as outsiders tried to make it out to be? Probably not.
Both sides said the right things today, and while some of it may come across as disingenuous to skeptics, there was plenty of truth to it. These people don't despise each other. They'll continue to have good relationships with each other, and it appears Kasten will at least have some continued influence with the organization as long as he maintains his minority stake in ownership. (If he does end up working for another club or for MLB's league offices, he would obviously have to sell.)
So what's Kasten's legacy? The on-field results -- a 318-455 cumulative record since he and the Lerners were named owners on May 3, 2006 -- suggest he failed miserably. The dwindling of a season ticket base that stood at 22,000 during the franchise's inaugural year but will dip well below 10,000 in Year 7 also suggests failure.
The question of Kasten's legacy, though, will always be tied to the question of how much impact he really had on the whole operation. His supporters will say he had little. His opponents will say he had plenty.
In the end, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Kasten did sell the Lerners on the idea of a long, slow rebuilding process, the kind that worked in Atlanta two decades ago but requires far more patience than most are willing to offer. But he also pushed for Bowden to be fired long before the Smiley Gonzalez scandal ever broke, and he pushed for a larger increase in payroll the last two seasons. Those pleas fell on deaf ears.
There's still time for Kasten to be redeemed. If this current group of young players -- along with the additions of a few free agents and more prospects on the way -- winds up winning by 2012, you have to give Stan at least some credit for helping make it happen. It may have taken longer than anyone wanted, but it will have happened.
If, however, this isn't the group that ultimately wins, and if by 2013 the Nationals are undergoing another front-office and roster overhaul, the Kasten years will have been a waste.
This is a seminal moment for the Nationals. A lot is riding on The Plan that was engineered by Kasten four years ago and was executed by ownership and the front office. The man who orchestrated it believes the payoff is coming, that the ultimate measure of success is not far off.
All we know today is this: Whether the Nats are winners in 2013 or whether they're starting all over from scratch again, Kasten won't be watching it from the front row of the Presidents Club at Nationals Park.
Stan leaves this franchise with a significant imprint left behind. What happens from here is now out of his control.
Posted by Mark Zuckerman at 9:25 PM