- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 30, 2009

With four months remaining in this season, Washington Nationals fans already have accepted that they once again must suffer in the present and look to the future.

That view, though, is the best it has been in the short history of this franchise in the District, thanks to the performance of the Nationals’ young starting pitchers and the promise of their soon-to-be No. 1 pick, pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

Shairon Martis, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen have shown enough in their brief major league outings to encourage hopes that the club is assembling one of the best young staffs in baseball - particularly if the Nats draft and sign Strasburg, the most highly touted prospect in recent memory.

None of those players have pitched enough to conclude that they can be written into the Nationals’ rotation for years to come. Detwiler and Stammen have combined to start just five games. Zimmermann has started eight this season and Martis 13 dating to last year, and both pitchers have endured some rocky moments.

A young pitcher must face teams several times before his club can feel comfortable that he has the bona fides to be a major league hurler who can be counted on most nights to keep his team in a game.

Since 2007, John Lannan has 47 starts and a 3.98 ERA for the woeful Nationals - “hapless” is emerging as the adjective of choice to describe the team as writers get weary of “woeful” - giving the club enough evidence to draw that conclusion.

Lannan accomplished that - fortunately, for the Nationals - with no leadership on the pitching staff, nobody to show him what it takes to be a major league pitcher, no veteran to use as a role model.

The Nationals can’t afford to take that chance with the rest of their young arms.

One of the top priorities for the 2010 Nationals (I know, it’s painfully early to be writing about 2010) must be to add a veteran pitcher - a mother hen, if you will.

Even with good coaches and a good manager, a line always separates management and players - a divide that sometimes obscures the lessons the staff tries to teach. The right veteran player, however, often can get the attention of younger players and set the standard for what being a major leaguer means.

I saw it firsthand in Baltimore in 1992 with Rick Sutcliffe, whose presence in the Orioles’ rotation was invaluable to the development of Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald. Sutcliffe was a rarity, a pitcher who was the leader of the entire clubhouse - a place usually occupied only by position players.

And those young pitchers in Atlanta - John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery - had Charlie Leibrandt as the leader of the staff, someone who commanded respect and attention.

That kind of pitcher should be a priority for the Nationals this winter.

“That would be ideal,” manager Manny Acta said. “For the last three years, we have talked about it. We would love to have a veteran guy who can teach these guys the right way to go about pitching and handling their business. We haven’t been able to do it.

“You want to be careful because you want to bring the right veteran in here, a guy who is going to command respect for how he treats them, not because of how long he has been in the game. If you bring a veteran in for the sake of it and he doesn’t earn the respect of the guys, they are not going to learn anything - they are going to stay away from him. Ideally, you want a guy like that who can help your kids along the way, a guy who they can hang out with when he is not pitching, to learn from him.”

It’s obvious when Acta talks about the “right” veteran that he is not talking about Odalis Perez - hardly the ideal role model - or Tim Redding, who somehow developed a reputation as a mentor to young pitchers. He wasn’t.

Acta might well have been speaking about his entire team, not just his young pitchers. Thanks to franchise wrecker Jim Bowden, Acta has been saddled with clubhouse cancers such as Robert Fick and Dmitri Young rather than blessed with veteran leaders. Talk about a farce - the Nationals traded for Elijah Dukes and touted Young as a role model for the troubled young player.

Acta still doesn’t have that veteran presence in the clubhouse. The lone player who stood up and talked to the team after Acta’s recent team meeting was Ron Villone, who has been with the club three weeks.

The Nationals need the right veteran position player to serve in this role as well as a veteran pitcher.

That is how you change the culture of losing and start this team in a different direction.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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