For Nationals, the future is now
Strasburg's arrival, other changes breathing new life into once-moribund franchise
WASHINGTON -- It was barely more than a week ago. It seems like about a century.It seems like it because the Washington Nationals were still playing a baseball game without a fellow named Stephen Strasburg on their roster -- for the last time. It was a few minutes before 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 6. Mark down that date. Ian Desmond bounced to second for the final out of a tough extra-inning loss to the Reds. And with that, Nationals president Stan Kasten turned toward a friend and announced: "Thank goodness that era is behind us." Boy, he got that right.
So the arrival of Strasburg is more than merely an opportunity for this team to sell a bunch of shirts and fill up the seats every five days. This, said GM Mike Rizzo, is "a watershed moment for us.""I grew up in Indianapolis, and in my family, we were Colts fans before they got Peyton [Manning]," said rookie pitcher Drew Storen. "But most people around us weren't. They were Bears fans or Bengals fans. Then Peyton got there, and they all became Colts fans. The same thing could happen here. This could be a real benchmark for this team." There is no such thing, remember, as a lifelong Nationals fan -- "unless," Kasten joked, "they're under 5." So this is this franchise's chance to lure these strangers in to check out The Phenom and then hang on to their hearts forever. To pull that off, though, it's going to take more than one guy with a bionic arm. The mission, for this team, has to be to become something much bigger and brighter than just Stephen Strasburg's backup band. If this is merely another version of the '09 Royals with Zack Greinke or the '72 Phillies with Steve Carlton, this team's Strasburg-ian era will go down as the biggest missed opportunity of modern times. So the mission is to assemble a team around this fellow that can win, and win a lot, and win for as long as Strasburg has a W on his cap. But that leads us to the biggest bulletin of all: That anticipated time is approaching more rapidly than you think. "This team is on the right track," said one scout who covers the Nationals' system. "A lot of good things are happening there. They have a chance to really make a big splash in that division, the way they're going." Check the standings, and you find a team that's only two games under .500 -- a monstrous step up after two straight 100-loss seasons. Check the runs-scored column, and you find a lineup that has scored more runs than the Phillies and Tigers.
“Check the left side of the infield, where Zimmerman has emerged as the best third baseman in the National League at age 25, and Desmond, the rookie shortstop, has "made a significant difference," another NL scout said. Check the middle of this lineup, where Dunn leads the NL in total bases, where Josh Willingham trails only Albert Pujols in on-base percentage and where Zimmerman ranks third in the league in OPS. And check that pitcher's mound, where Strasburg works, where Storen (1.54 ERA) is on track to be the closer of the future and where rehabbing staff-changers Jordan Zimmermann and Chien-Ming Wang should be back in this rotation at some point in the second half if all goes well. But most of all, check out how the vibe around this team has done a U-turn northward -- and not just because Strasburg showed up for work, either. "I'm amazed at the culture change," another NL scout said. "This is a classic case of addition by subtraction. They got rid of all their knuckleheads, and it's made a big difference. You go watch their club, and the lineup is very similar to last year, with the exception of Desmond and Pudge [Rodriguez]. The bullpen, except for Storen, has a lot of guys who were afterthoughts. Yet it feels like a different club." Well, that's no coincidence, and it's no mirage. That culture-renovation project was the No. 1 item on the mission statement of the architect of this turnaround, Rizzo. It was only 15 months ago that Rizzo's predecessor, Jim Bowden, was forced to resign in the middle of spring training as the heat from a Latin American signing-bonus scandal was threatening to engulf him and his franchise. It's just 10 months since the Nationals zapped the "interim" from Rizzo's title and made him the "permanent" GM. And "When you look at what they've done since Mike's had that job," said one of the scouts quoted earlier, "it's been an amazing 15 months." No doubt. Nearly everything that has happened to this team in the past year has Rizzo's unmistakable stamp on it. The dumping of mismatched parts such as Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes. The acquisition of energizers such as Nyjer Morgan. The import of professional stabilizers such as Livan Hernandez and Adam Kennedy. The complete overhaul of an entire bullpen. The decision to hang on to productive bats, and teammates, such as Dunn and Willingham, who once seemed as if they were just passing through.
The future for us is now -- and not in a couple of years. It's here.” -- Nationals slugger Adam Dunn
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