Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kasten's appropriate departure

Word of Stan Kasten's resignation as team president began circulating around Nationals Park at 1:30 this afternoon. Players who were heading out to the field for batting practice were summoned back to the clubhouse for an impromptu team meeting. Reaction was swift and generally featured some element of surprise.

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.


JayB said...

Nice work Mark....Stan failed but the real problem still exists...Lerner ownership is the real problem. Bud S. will regret his decision to try to hand pick the ownership instead of allowing a free market work and give DC a team with a chance to be respected and win.

A wasted opportunity that will never come again to DC.

Anonymous said...

Take off the Curly W glasses!!! This is not a positive, this is a 100% repudiation of the Lerner family and its ownership group. Stan had the guts to stay with the Braves until he built a winner, a winner he built his way. With Stan leaving before turning the team around means he does not believe he has the resources from the Lerner family to do so and that he does not have faith in the GM, scouting department, coaching staff and on field personnel.

With Stan gone a 100 loss season may be in the offing from 2011!

Doc said...

If Bud Selig and the baseball brotherhood hadn't caved into the politics at the time, Soros would now be the owner, and the free market of baseball ownership would be alive and well.

Soros, who could buy and sell the Lerners 10x, would have spent the money that Kasten wanted for development and on field success.

With Soros' money, the Yankees could have become a farm team for the Nats!

The low rollers' cabal of baseball ownership didn't want Soros upsetting their financial applecart, and were only too happy to have the Nats be the doormat of the NL East, like KC is in the AL.

Maybe the Nats will surprise everyone sooner than they thought.

I'm also wondering if it's the Lerners who are putting on the brakes in signing Dunn.

NatBiscuit said...

I disagree with much of the analysis. Stan's work will not have been a failure regardless of what happens next. The things that have been accomplished - rebuilding the farm system, building a stadium, assembling a front office - absolutely had to be accomplished. If the vision in 2006 was that the Nationals would be playoff contenders in 4 years then the expectation was incredibly unfair and unrealistic. The farm system was barren, the scouting logs empty, the financial resources stretched, the fan base still in its infancy. Macro-economics has had a larger impact than most people bother to write into their analysis.

Kasten was no miracle worker. That's not failure. He leaves the organization in much, much better shape than he found it. The Kasten years will not have been a waste and Kasten will not have been a failure. He succeeded in accomplishing some very important things. That is called success!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous - 9:56, there is no reason to be so pessimistic. The team has a very nice core of young players (Zimmerman, Desmond, Espinosa, Ramos, Bernadina, Morse, Zimmermann, Detwiler, Lannan, Storen, Clippard, Balester, Burnett & of course Strasburg) and the minors is in better shape than it has been in a long time. Rizzo has a done a good job early on--just think about the way he rebuilt the bullpen which was a nightmare just last year. This is a team that had to build from nothing as MLB devastated its minor leagues and it takes awhile, but they're on the right track and the team's progression should continue.

Dave said...

I hope the Lerners are reading Nats Insider. Mark, you have analyzed the situation with more insight and sensitivity than we are likely to see anywhere else.

I thank you for your great work this season, and I hope you'll continue to speak truth to power by describing the situation as it really is.

Whoever runs the team now should know that it really is time for the Nats to begin winning. Otherwise the last six miserable years will have been a complete waste for everybody.

natsfan1a said...

Thanks, Mark, for this reasoned, and insightful post. (Wait, this *is* still the Internetz, right? :-))

Feel Wood said...

"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."

But as Kasten said as part of his parting remarks, the maintaining of the total attendance numbers despite the terrible on-field record and the decline in season ticket numbers actually suggests success. Why? Because it means more individual people are coming to games than before. For every drop of one full season ticket holder, 81 people would have to buy single game tickets to maintain the same total attendance. If many of those 81 people all start going to more games as the team improves, that will cause an exponential increase in attendance. Also, since season tickets are sold at a discounted per-game price, the team actually makes more money by selling 81 single game seats than it does by selling one full season ticket. So Kasten managing to maintain the attendance total despite all the adversity really is an accomplishment worth noting.

Nattydread said...

Good post Mark.

In short: Stan wants to do other things. Grown-ups are now in charge, so his role is diminished.

Sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but this team IS SO MUCH better than when Bowden was driving. Last night's rookie fielding and slug fest makes it clear. Its so nice to see the future --- not Willie Harris looking.

Now the question is --- How long does Mark Zuckerman stay???

Ricahrd said...

Enjoyed the article, Mark, thanks. I wish Kasten well. The man seemed to give 100% of himself. I question those who call the Lerners cheap though. First, they've spent money on Zimm, Dunn's first Nats contract (let's do another one! -- pls), Marquis (ouch!), da meat hook (ouch!), LoDuca (ouch!), Strasburg, Harper, even Guzman (2 years @ $8M per), and offered market price to Teixeira, the O Dog, Soriano and others. Second, spending smart is a good thing. ML teams are trying to do more of it. Ask the Cubs how the Soriano contract is working out, the poster child for profligacy. ML teams supposedly spent $250M this year on players who end up on the DL for extended periods. What would the spenders do, have the Nats pay $15-20 for a starter on a near-.500 team? The Nats have a good group of young hitters and relief pitchers. Now the starters have to produce. If they don't and the Lerners don' fix it in the FA market, then I'm with you, it's a failing.

NatsJack in Florida said...

I will not miss Stan Kasten at all. It took 3 years of explaining to him how to develope a true "Flex Plan" for out of town fans so they could purchase game tickets in advance without going through Ticket Master and paying the add services fees for each ticket.

I did manage to get an apology out of him during my third trip to DC for the horrendus day he provided all of us on opening day this year.

The true indictation of what Stan was all about is that he was President of three professional sports franchises at the same time, Thrashers, Hawks and Braves meaning his primary purpose was to sell tickets, not build a franchise.

The Braves were built by John Schuerholz, not Stan Kasten, much like the winning Nationals will be built by Mike Rizzo.

Sunderland said...

Richard / Ricahrd:

"spending smart is a good thing"
And drafting the best players available, regardless of cost, is the very first step in spending smart.
And it took until summer 2010 for the Lerners to learn that lesson.

Consider the 2010 draft, where Rizzo went after who he thought was the best players available, knowing that to sign them he'd have to go "over slot". And note that they did sign them, and several over slot. This was a great draft for the Nats.

Then consider every previous draft. Picking guys well ahead of where they were projected, signing them for well under slot.
Storen's a good kid, could be a solid MLB relief pitcher. But as the 10th player taken? Trevor Holder was shocked that he was taken in the 3rd round, the 81st player taken. They could have easily taken Holder in the 6th or 7th round.

That's one example of the Lerners being both cheap and, frankly, stupid.
The draft is not only the the right way to build your farm system, it is also by far the cheapest way to acquire talent.

Consider what we're paying Strasburg and Harper. They were relatively cheap. Imagine how much more we'd have had to pay if they were free agents (see Chapman, Aroldis).

Anonymous said...

@ NatsJack

"The Braves were built by John Schuerholz, not Stan Kasten, much like the winning Nationals will be built by Mike Rizzo."

BLASPHEMY! ;) Don;t you know all of these Kool-aid drinkers here chanted all of the things Stan did to make the Braves better these long 5 years. Stan was the king, unfutunately he ended up as the Lerner's jester! Good riddance.

Richard said...

My point is that the if the Rays, Reds, Rangers, and San Diego can win so can the Nats. The Lerners seem to listen to the baseball people for better or worse -- and have offered large dollars. But, yes, this year's draft is promising in several ways.

Anonymous said...

The story here is the very telling quote from the Lerners,

"Stan Kasten will always be an important part of the history of the Washington Nationals. He was vital to ownership winning its bid from Major League Baseball"

Without Stan the Lerners would have lost, his contrbution was not growing the franchise but only the Lerner's wealth. Ted Lerner is an astute businessman and he has noted that teams that do not spend like the Pirates and the Royals are turning a profit, os he will continue to not spend until there is a financial impact on him if he does not increase the payroll.

Harper_ROY_2012 said...

As we know Stan has has meetings on and off the past couple years with the Blue Jays.

Mark -

How long until he heads up there with Dana Brown and others who have left the Nats front office!?

Anonymous8 said...

The hierarchy takes the blame and praise based on losing and winning.

Kasten's plan is being used by many teams and implemented by their GM's. I don't like StanK as a person, but I believe in the plan. Even the Orioles went to that under MacFail.

I am giving the Lerner's a little more time and Adam Dunn is my "test" to see if they pass or fail. Tick tock!

Big Cat said...

Stans legacy will be inviting Philly fans down to see our new park. And oh how they the bus load....thousands of them. Good bye Stan, don't let the door smack you in the behind on your way out!

NatsJack in Florida said...

I'm with you, Big Cat....and I'll send a report this afternoon on the FL Instructional League game with the Astros.

N. Cognito said...

If next season turns into another disaster, there's some solace - premium seats are dropping in price and they will include complimentary beer and wine.

"The Washington Nationals today announced season ticket prices for the 2011 season at Nationals Park. In an effort to continue to offer affordable entertainment, the team will lower or maintain the same price structure from 2010 for all regular season tickets while decreasing the cost of tickets in the premium seating areas. The Nationals have also added value to seats in the Home Plate Box section, the PNC Diamond Club and the Lexus Presidents Club by making all three areas all-inclusive with complimentary food, beer, wine and soda."

Anonymous said...

Great, free beer in the Presidents Club? Now the Philly fans will buy the $250 ALL YOU CAN DRINK ticket and find themselves in the lap of luxury behind home plate! LOL

N. Cognito said...

Inviting Philly fans down for Opening Day and selling them thousands of tickets before Nats fans had a chance to buy any, are forgivable sins.
Not apologizing to Nats fans for that is unforgivable.

Steve M. said...

No fooling here. I hope the Philly fans don't find out about the free beer in the President's Club or the Diamond Club.

It is a no brainer for those fools. Do the math:

A Diamond Club ticket is $135 for the season now and includes free food and beer.

If you drink 9 beers per game, 1 for every inning, ($80) and spent $30 for food, your $135 ticket is now only $25 which is cheaper than an outfield seat.

They may want to move the Red Loft to the PNC Diamond Club because most of their patrons are drinking at least 9 beers per game!

Section 222 said...

Feel Wood makes an interesting point about STH numbers vs. overall paid attendance, but the numbers seem to indicate that single game ticket sales have remained at about the same level. Here are the overall paid attendance numbers for the Nationals so far:

2005 – 2.73 million
2006— 2.15
2007— 1.96
2008— 2.32
2009 – 1.82
2010 – 1.71 (6 games left)

If there were 22,000 STHs in 2005, they accounted for 1.78 million of the total attendance. This year's appoximately 10,000 STHs (which seems like a pretty good guess but might be a little high based on the record low attendance last week of 10,999) accounts for just 810,000 of this year's attendance. So single game purchases account for about a million in both years. Pretty hard to call that a success,especially since Strasburg's starts boosted single game attendance quite a bit this year.

The team has done alot to try to retain STHs, and I hope they keep doing that. But in the end, as StanK said, you get the attendance you deserve, and all the giveaways and goofy Clint-like entertainment can't make up for a lousy product on the field.

N. Cognito said...

At $65 per seat (no food, only $5 more than Dugout Boxes), I'd be shocked if Home Plate Reserved don't get sold out.

Feel Wood said...

"If there were 22,000 STHs in 2005, they accounted for 1.78 million of the total attendance. This year's appoximately 10,000 STHs (which seems like a pretty good guess but might be a little high based on the record low attendance last week of 10,999) accounts for just 810,000 of this year's attendance. So single game purchases account for about a million in both years. Pretty hard to call that a success,especially since Strasburg's starts boosted single game attendance quite a bit this year."

I disagree. If they indeed did sell a million single game tickets in the 2005 boom year and even with all the subsequent losing and adversity they are still selling a million single game tickets a year, I would call that an unqualified success.

Section 222 said...

@FeelWood Really? With six Strasburg starts padding the numbers this year? Unqualified success? Well, I'd be happy to have you as my supervisor come my next evaluation. I agree the numbers aren't all that surprising, given the state of Natstown, but it's the state of Natstown for which Kasten was responsible. And markedly decreased attendance not only from 2005, but also from 2006 and 2008 might lead one to conclude that something's not working.

My only somewhat educated opinion is that the Nats should rethink their whole ticket pricing structure. Ever notice that the Infield Gallery and the closer in sections of the Lower Right Field Terrace are nearly full for most games where the attendance tops 25,000? There's a market for more reasonably priced good seats. I'm glad the Nats didn't raise prices this year, but this was a chance for them to test a new model by steeply cutting prices for season tickets in the lower levels to see if they can increase sales. If they did that and it worked, a moderate boost for the following year when Strasburg returns probably wouldn't cause a mutiny among STHs. By keeping ticket prices constant (except for the super pricey seats) and without hope for a new draw like Strasburg (and Dunn probably leaving), they are probably going to have only 10,000 STHs again next year. I'll still be one of them, but that's pretty pathetic for a market of this size.

Golfersal said...

Let's be perfectly frank on what happened to both Joe Torre and Stan Kasten in the last week. Both high profile people that have seen lots of success in there time, basically gave up because of the acts of their owners. For Torre it was an easy choice, Dodger owner Frank McCourt is more interested in keeping his sham alive in Los Angeles and Torre knew that there is no future in the next couple of years for the Dodgers.

As for Kasten, he has had his share of battles with Nat owner Ted Lerner, who may not be as close to a poor owner as Peter Angelos has been, but for Lerner it's not about having the best team in baseball, something that Stan Kasten went after, but for Lerner it is how much can he make from the Nats.

Kasten was a very lucky man to work for Ted Turner in Atlanta, because Turner placed winning over money and gave Kasten carte-blance in Atlanta and Kasten delivered the goods.

Frankly if both men were leaving because of age or personal things, they wouldn't of left open the possibility of going someplace else and working for another team.

So if anyone believed Kasten's reason's he is a damn fool, if the Lerners gave Kasten the same financial resources as Ted Turner did, you could bet your bottom dollar that Kasten wouldn't of left.

So the reality of things is simple, ownership is only going to a certain level, if the Nats win great, if the Nats finish 25 games back like they have done the last couple of years, that's great for Lerner's also because at the end of the day they are making money off of this franchise and that is all that matters.

It's a shame but it's happening more and more in sports, the Ted Turners, Mark Cuba's, Ted Leonsis are very rare. As bad as the Washington Wizards have been, I will bet that they see a national championship way before the Nats because they have an owner that cares about winning first over profits.

So we are having to learn this lesson fast, that the Lerner's have more Angelos in them and it may be a long time before we see a team that we can be proud of.

It's a very sad day in Nats Town, because if a guy like Stan Kasten leaves, we won't find anyone good to replace him with, so we should all buckle up and expect a rocky next couple of years of more losing.

NatsJack in Florida said...

Stan Kasten is now and will always be a carnival side show huckster.

I believe the Lerner's feel an obligation to bring winning baseball to DC and will stick to the plan established by Mike Rizzo which is based on a solid minor league system that produces quality athletes every year.

I get pretty tired of listening to all the whiners about the successful Lerner family. If you think they plan on profiting from failure, you don't know much about their business accumen.

HondoFan said...

I didn't expect this team to be in the shape it's in today when I bought season tickets back in 2005. There has been enough time to evaluate the Nationals organization from top to bottom...and the top appears to be the bottom.

Anonymous said...

sign adam dunn. Why did we get rid of Gonzalez and Capps? Why not let the new kid, Bryce be the catcher?? Keep Capps and we would have won 3-4 more games this season and 10 more next season

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