Thom Loverro: Stan Kasten deserves some credit for the success of Nationals

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It was appropriate that Stan Kasten was in the stands Thursday night at Nationals Park when the team he thought he was going to run clinched its first playoff spot with a 4-1 Washington win over the team he runs now, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Inside the Nationals' clubhouse, players and management -- including the Lerner family owners -- toasted the moment in a subdued celebration, knowing that all they secured at this point was a chance to play in the one-game wild-card playoff.

They should toast Kasten as well because with his arms tied behind his back by the Lerner family, the successful sports executive still managed to make the move that changed the direction of the franchise and led to its current playoff success.

Kasten couldn't replace general manager Jim Bowden once he and the Lerners -- who had pretty much adopted Bowden -- took over the team in mid-2006. So Kasten did the next best thing -- hired Bowden's future replacement.

It was Kasten who brought in Mike Rizzo to be assistant general manager and vice president of baseball operations on July 24, 2006. Given that Bowden was protected by the Lerners, it was the only move Kasten could make to put in place the changes that would have to come in order to have a successful front office.

Rizzo, who built up the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system as director of scouting from 2000 to 2006, was passed over for the vacant GM job there in favor of Josh Byrnes. So Rizzo was looking for a place where he could get the best opportunity to rise to GM.

Dodgers GM Ned Colletti was courting Rizzo heavily to be the assistant GM there when he got the call from Kasten about the Nationals position they were opening up.

Here you had the Dodgers, one of baseball's marquis franchises, and the Nationals, a team that existed in Washington for a little more than a year and wasn't inclined to match L.A.'s money.

Rizzo was looking for the best chance to move into the top job and didn't see the Dodgers assistant GM role leading to that office anytime soon. But he looked into the same crystal ball that Kasten -- and most baseball observers -- were looking into and saw Washington as the best chance for advancement.

Why? Because like Kasten and others, the expectation was that the Lerners' golden boy, Bowden, would self destruct at some point. And he did, first in 2008 with his failure to sign first-round draft pick Aaron Crow, and then the following spring with the Smiley Gonzalez scandal -- when the shortstop faked his age and identity before receiving a $1.4 million signing bonus.

Bowden was forced out, and Kasten handed Rizzo a shovel and told him to dig. He did, digging the franchise out of that mess and making the moves that have led them to this point -- postseason baseball in Washington for the first time since 1933.

You can thank Stan Kasten for that.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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Thom Loverro

Sports columnist
The Washington Examiner