Commentary

It's not all doom and gloom in D.C.

Believe it or not, the Washington Nationals have good reason to be optimistic

Originally Published: May 22, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The Nationals made history again this week: They tied a major league record by losing six straight games while scoring at least five runs in each game. It wasn't as noteworthy as becoming the first team ever to lose three games in a three-game series despite leading in the ninth inning or later in all three, as the Nationals did this year, but in the sad state that is this franchise, it is considered progress because they scored five runs in six consecutive games.

[+] EnlargeRyan Zimmerman
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak"Natinals"? A uniform company apologized last month for the missing "o" on Ryan Zimmerman's jersey.

So, for the moment, forget the 11-28 record. Forget the sadly lagging attendance, the embarrassment of having to fire their embattled general manager in spring training, and the uniform debacle that left them wearing jerseys that spelled NATINALS for one game this year. Forget that this team might have had the worst first 40 games by any bullpen in history. Look down the road, maybe a few years, and there is hope for the Nationals.

Hope comes in several forms, the first being an offense that is a hundred times better than last year. "Two hundred times," a club official said. "Three hundred times," manager Manny Acta said. Second, a young starting rotation with potential, especially if in September it includes Stephen Strasburg, the wunderkind right-hander from San Diego State with a nearly 10-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And third, a slightly better collection of characters in the clubhouse, a more reliable guy running the team and a sense that things can't get worse.

"With a few more players, we could skip mediocre and go straight to good," said Nationals outfielder Adam Dunn.

Last year, the Nationals scored the third-fewest runs (641) in the major leagues. This year, they're second in the NL with 205, putting them on pace to score 200 more runs than in 2008. "Last year, I'd come to the park hoping we didn't get shut out," Acta said. "We had to hit [outfielder Lastings] Milledge and [catcher Jesus] Flores in the middle of the order. That was pretty weak. Now, when we're at full throttle, I can hit Flores seventh or eighth."

Milledge led the Nats in home runs (14) and RBIs (61) last year, making them the first team since the 1985 Cardinals to have a team leader with numbers that low in those categories. "Playing against them, I knew they were offensively challenged," Dunn said. "But there are a lot of guys finding their way. [First baseman] Nick [Johnson] is healthy. Guzzy [shortstop Cristian Guzman] is hitting. And Ryan [Zimmerman] is coming into his own."

Without Dunn, and with all the injuries, Zimmerman was essentially alone in the lineup when he was healthy last season. Now he has developed into one of the game's better young hitters -- he hit in 30 straight games this season -- and he has help.

"We're working pitchers better," Acta said. "Every game, it seems like the other pitcher throws 20-some pitches in the first inning. We have more of a plan. We have guys who can really hit. This year, other pitchers are looking at our lineup like our pitchers looked at other lineups last year. We have four or five guys who can hit 20 homers and drive in 80. That's not easy to do."

The improvement offensively is obvious. The progress made in the starting rotation is harder to see.

"Absolutely I can see it -- three years ago when I got here, we had to hold a tryout camp in spring training just so we could find five starting pitchers to start the season," Acta said. "Now we have some good young starting pitchers, with maybe another one coming out of the [June] draft. Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Left-handers John Lannan and Ross Detwiler and right-handers Shairon Martis and Jordan Zimmermann are all under age 25, and all have exceptional stuff. Martis is the fourth pitcher in the expansion era (1961-on) to win his first five decisions for a team that played under .300 with other pitchers on the mound.

"It's promising," Ryan Zimmerman said. "It's not just that they have good stuff, it's the way they handle themselves for 22-, 23-, 24-year-olds. That's what you want in your rotation. With so many young guys, we might not have to spend on starting pitchers in free agency. They're the most expensive guys."

It will be extremely expensive to sign Strasburg, assuming the Nats draft him, which not everyone in baseball is convinced they will. But if they don't, they will become the laughingstock of baseball. Strasburg is 13-0 with 19 walks and 180 strikeouts and is represented by Scott Boras. Depending on whom you to talk to, it's going to cost the Nationals somewhere between $25 million and $50 million to sign him for six years. (The Nats also have the No. 10 pick in the draft, which will be costly.) The Nationals have been run frugally since Theodore Lerner bought the club nearly three years ago, but having failed to sign their No. 1 pick last year (Aaron Crow), and having a transcendent talent such as Strasburg -- "he's ready to the pitch in the big leagues now," one college coach said -- the Nationals have to draft Strasburg and sign him if they're going to move forward.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Andy Hayt/Getty ImagesThe Nationals have the opportunity to draft Stephen Strasburg, perhaps the best college pitcher ever. Will they pay up?

"We have to talk about the three-ton elephant in the room," said Mike Rizzo, the acting general manager of the Nationals. "He's on the top of our board, but he pulled an oblique muscle [Wednesday]; I saw him walk off the mound holding his side. But if the draft was today, we would select Stephen Strasburg. Then we would go about the process of trying to sign him."

But the Nats have another task almost as big as signing Strasburg: fixing a bullpen that has been impossibly terrible. "If we had just an average bullpen," Acta said, "we would have 19 or 20 wins now."

Seconds after Acta said that, Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire entered Acta's office and showed him a card that a friend had made for him. It read, "When you have been through hell, keep on going."

St. Claire may not survive the indescribably bad work by the bullpen, but there is no immediate relief help in the minor league system. "We have a piece or two," Rizzo says. Chances are, they're going to have to sign a reliever or two after this season, or perhaps trade Johnson (Mets? Giants?) for a couple of pitchers before the July 31 trade deadline. Or they're going to have to persuade Joel Hanrahan to trust his 96 mph fastball, throw it more often, throw it over the plate and not be overwhelmed about pitching the ninth inning.

And there are other things to fix. The Nationals don't have a good defensive team. They don't have a center fielder -- Milledge, on the disabled list with a broken finger at Triple-A, is not a center fielder. And it's difficult to depend on another center fielder, Elijah Dukes (currently on the DL), because of his disruptive nature in the clubhouse. "If he were gone," one National said, "the clubhouse would be a happier place."

Eventually, it's going to be a happier place in Washington because the losing can't get any worse and help is on the way. It is a happier place because Rizzo, who is greatly respected throughout baseball, is the acting general manager, replacing Jim Bowden, who was fired this spring after a chaotic four years that included personal and legal issues and lots of losing.

"We've got a plan set by [club president] Stan Kasten [to build with young players], and we've been diligent with the plan," Rizzo said. "Take the case study of Tampa Bay and Arizona. It took seven years of drafts to develop enough prospects to make the [Dan] Haren trade [in which the Diamondbacks sent six players to Oakland in 2007] and win three NL West titles. We're on our way, but it's going to take time."

Zimmerman can wait. He recently signed a five-year deal worth $45 million.

"I love it here, it's great for me and my family," he said. "But I wouldn't have signed here if I didn't think we were going to win. I love baseball, and I love getting paid, but ask A-Rod, ask anyone: It means nothing if you don't win. I want to be here when we do."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.