Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 26, 2010

Stan Kasten Moves On

More bad news for fans of the Washington Nationals arrived on Thursday when Stan Kasten, the team’s president for the past 5 years, announced he would leave at the end of this season. Kasten is one of the most accomplished executives in sports, with a long record of building successful franchises.

He made his reputation in Atlanta, during many years of association with Ted Turner. In 1979 Turner named the then 27-year old Kasten general manager of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. The youngest GM in the league, Kasten gradually built the Hawks into a perennial playoff team and was named the team president in 1986. In the 1990’s the team made 7 straight playoff appearances and three times had 50-win seasons.

In 1986, Kasten was also named president of Turner’s Atlanta Braves. From 1987 to 2003, the Braves won more games than any other Major League team. The Atlanta nine ruled the National League East, winning 12 straight division titles beginning in 1991, along with 5 NL crowns and the 1995 World Series.

In 1999, Kasten put on a third hat when he was named president of the NHL’s expansion Atlanta Thrashers. He left all of his Atlanta positions in 2003, and took three years off. Then in 2006 the Washington Nationals, under MLB ownership since their final year as the Montreal Expos in 2004 were finally going to be sold. The winning bidders were a group led by Washington, D.C. real estate developer Ted Lerner. During the sales process MLB Commissioner Bud Selig orchestrated a shotgun wedding between Lerner and Kasten, with the latter becoming president of the franchise.

As evidenced by the diversity of his resume, Stan Kasten’s ability is not based on his particular knowledge of any one sport. He’s not a former player turned front office guy. Rather he’s an executive with a remarkable capacity to correctly judge the talents and skills of the people he hires. He also has an ego that he keeps well enough in check so that he never loses sight of what he doesn’t know. The result has been a record of hiring general managers, coaches, and player development staff who know their sports and then staying out of their way. In Washington that would make him the anti-Dan Snyder.

Kasten also has demonstrated a consistent philosophy about how to build a winning franchise. I can’t help but think that philosophy is a large part of the reason he’s leaving the Nats at the end of his five-year contract. His first step has always been to focus on building a strong foundation. This has meant developing the farm system and stockpiling pitchers both throughout that system and at the major league level. It has also meant a willingness to open the owner’s checkbook and tie promising young stars to the franchise with long-term contracts. Beyond that Kasten has always recognized that the economics of the modern game means that a team must be willing to augment that foundation by going into the free agent market and paying for the skills needed to put a franchise over the top.

Despite his record of success in Atlanta, in Washington Kasten seems to have had trouble selling his approach to Ted Lerner almost from the start. To be certain, there have been some successes. His very first hire was Mike Rizzo, who shaped the scouting and player development philosophy of the team before being promoted to general manager late last year. First round draft picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were both signed to multi-million dollar contracts. The Nats have enough young pitching depth that in July they were willing to trade their closer of today, Matt Capps, to the Twins for Wilson Ramos, who they hope will be their catcher of tomorrow. And at the start of last season Washington spent $45 million to tie then 24-year old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to the team for five years.

But these occasional successes have tended to mask a broader trend against spending the money needed to field a competitive team. The Nationals opened a beautiful new ballpark in 2008, with a team payroll $9 million less than in 2006, the last year that MLB owned the franchise. The result was a 102-loss season in 2008, followed by a 103-loss season last year. Even with this year’s record likely to improve by a not insignificant ten games or so, an opportunity has clearly been squandered. Instead of capitalizing on the allure of a new facility, the Nationals have seen a steady decline in fan support, with average attendance now 23rd in the majors; not to mention the embarrassment of a turnout of just 10,999 only last week. Meanwhile slugger Adam Dunn, at the end of his original two-year deal remains unsigned beyond next weekend. This despite the fact that Dunn has given every indication that he would like to stay in D.C.

Just days before announcing his departure, Kasten made it clear that he believes the time has come for the Nationals to spend like the mid-market team they are. “This is the time to act,” he told The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell. “We are close. This is how it felt in Atlanta just before we turned it around. Once you’ve laid the groundwork and improved the farm system, you need to add some pieces. That’s where we are now.”

Kasten said all the right things in the press release confirming his decision to leave. He even said he had told Ted Lerner a year ago that he would not seek a contract renewal. Lerner in turn issued the obligatory gracious thank you for Kasten’s service. But given the timing of his comment to the Post’s Boswell, one can’t help but wonder if Kasten knew that while he believes this is the time to act, the guy who signs the checks has other ideas.

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Responses

  1. Mike, You did an excellent job summarizing the career of GM Kasten. Your point about a smart GM knowing what his limits are, and trusting competent people to do their jobs, is an excellent observation. Washington does seem to have some pieces in place to build on, but they are at a dangerous crossroads. Hopefully, they won’t follow the Pittsburgh route of unnecessary, self-inflicted failure.
    Nice work, Bill (The On Deck Circle)


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